The United States Men’s National Team picked a good time to put together their best performance of the year Saturday afternoon. Now the Stars and Stripes need to carry it over to Brazil.
Having already defeated Azerbaijan and Turkey in two rather uninspired performances leading into the 2014 World Cup, coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad was sharper and more focused when they took the field against Nigeria in the heat and humidity of Jacksonville, Fla.
The result was a two-goal revival for striker Jozy Altidore during a 2-1 win over the reigning African champions. Having absorbed a 27-match scoring drought, Altidore was impressive for the balance on Saturday, making decisive runs with his attacks in combination with team captain Clint Dempsey. But even as Altidore’s breakout caught headlines, the larger and much more important story of Saturday’s contest was the play of a defense that had looked shaky at best during the squad’s previous outing against the Turks.
In short, the United States looked compact, organized and poised. From a positional standpoint, the combination of Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler, DeMarcus Beasley and Fabian Johnson were rarely caught leaving space open for the Nigerians, which had been a constant issue against Turkey earlier. Recovery runs were quick and communication was smooth as evidenced by the lack of chances created by Nigeria in the contest.
Beasley and Johnson were particularly impressive. Johnson, who is quickly becoming the United States’ best defender, looks the part of a star in the making. Not only does Johnson anticipate the play and react well defensively, he continues to jump-start the offense as evidenced by his assist on Altidore’s first goal against Nigeria.
Beasley, meanwhile, provided a steady presence on the opposite side while displaying the speed that has led to his fourth inclusion on the USMNT.
Now the key becomes making the transition from the friendlies to the competition itself. For all their individual talent, the Nigerians tend to play a less forceful style than Ghana. The Ghanaians carry a similar skill level to their African compatriots, but like to press the action more quickly on offense. Asamoah Gyan, Sulley Muntari, Kwadwo Asamoah and Kevin Prince-Boateng are the engines that make Ghana’s offense go and certainly; Klinsmann will prepare his team for their attack in the coming days.
It seems that Klinsmann has made the decision to rely on the combination of Cameron and Besler in the middle, which worked well against the Nigerians. As long as Johnson continues to mesh well on the right side, the biggest question will be the left side. Timmy Chandler, who had looked lost at times against Turkey, came on for Beasley late in the second half and looked serviceable. Nevertheless, Beasley seems to have locked down that spot for now.
Factor in the contributions of both Michael Bradley and Kyle Beckerman, who both were solid in their recovery runs from the midfield, and the United States got the momentum-building performance it needed heading toward South America.
Of course, the true best will come in a matter of days at the Arena das Dunas in Natal, Brazil. Until then, Klinsmann and his group of defenders can at least rest a bit easier.