Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Trick Up His Sleeve

I ended my post about the U.S. vs. Turkey match saying that Jurgen Klinsmann might have trick or two up his sleeve before the first World Cup match against Ghana next Monday.

Turns out he had at least one, and we didn't have to wait until that game to see it.

The U.S. won its final warm-up match before Brazil, beating Nigeria 2-1 with two goals from Jozy Altidore (the first among the easiest he'll ever score, the second a vicious strike from 12 yards out).  Nigeria pulled back a consolation goal on a penalty kick in the 86th minute to ruin keeper Tim Howard's shut out in a match in which he won his 100th cap for the Stars and Stripes.

The U.S. rolled onto the pitch against Nigeria in a formation featuring two defensive midfielders (Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones) and no true left winger. That left Graham Zusi on the bench (apparently confirming the opinions of those who were less than impressed with his performance against the Turks) and the Americans with no right wing. While a departure from the previous two matches, this was the formation that had guided the Yanks through qualifying, including topping the Hex for the third straight time.

As predicted, Alejandro Bedoya was back at left wing against Nigeria after making way for Brad Davis in the Turkey match and DeMarcus Beasley was again at left back in place of Timmy Chandler, unimpressive against the Turks.

Contrary to what you might imagine, this formation actually created more chances than did the one used against Azerbaijan and Turkey which featured two forwards, two out-and-out wingers and two center-mids. Dempsey played more like a withdrawn striker than a partner alongside Altidore, Jones was more offensive, often drifting out wide (but tracked back as well), and Michael Bradley bossed the midfield and teamed with Dempsey to direct the attack.

This allowed more room for Altidore to roam, and also opened up the wings for marauding attacks from Beasley and right back Fabian Johnson who was brilliant offensively once again. Bedoya lacked quality in the attacking half of the field, but his defensive work was a big improvement over Davis's. Nigeria had the majority of possession in the first half but never looked particularly threatening, while the Americans' counterattack always looked likely to score.

The U.S. defense was solid most of the game. Central defenders Matt Besler committed a late foul that was whistled for a deserved penalty, but while he has been downgraded by some for the foul (and his play in general), the penalty was largely the fault of Omar Gonzalez, who came on late and was badly beaten by a Nigerian attacker in the build-up that resulted in the penalty and the goal.

Beckerman (15) sorts things out with Cameron and 
Besler (5) in the Nigeria match. (photo from usatoday.com)

After dominating the African champions, it seems likely that the U.S. starting 11 against Nigeria will take the field in the same formation against Ghana. It remains to be seen whether the U.S. has the strength and speed in the midfield, and the familiarity and organization in the back, to deal with the Ghanaian attack. But Beckerman's insertion into the line-up gives some hope for a more organized defense and a more creative attack.

And that hope is needed after Ghana demolished South Korea 4-0 last night in its last tune-up for Brazil. While the scoreline is intimidating, apparently Ghana did not dominate play as comprehensively as it indicates and South Korea was hurt by poor finishing.  Still, Ghana is spoiled for choices in the midfield and up top and will probably give the U.S. more to worry about as far as attacking options go than will Portugal.

Klinsmann appears to have this group as ready as it can be for the Group of Death. Two teams will survive, that much we know. Klinsmann has admitted that a win over Ghana is essential to the U.S. being one of those two. The time for analysis is over. Only the true test on the field remains.

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