It was the team’s most impressive send-off performance. Against a World Cup-qualified team, the United States was clearly the better side, with a slump-busting day from its main goal-scorer giving the team reason to believe all cylinders could be firing come June 16th.
Over 90 minutes in Jacksonville, Fla., however, we also saw a lot of things that may not matter at the World Cup. Nigeria may be joining the U.S. in Brazil, but the Super Eagles provided fewer tests than Turkey did a week ago. With three changes to his lineup, Klinsmann may not have thrown out the XI he plans to use against Ghana. And with Brad Davis picking up an injury in training, the U.S. may not a full team at its disposal.
From what may matter in nine days, though, here’s what stood out:
1. Formation need not be an obsession – When Jurgen Klinsmann fed into the U.S.’s growing diamond craze by stacking Michael Bradley on top of Jermaine Jones against Azerbaijan, he started an obsession he eventually pushed back against earlier this week.
Against Nigeria, the U.S. again scoffed at that obsession, deploying a lopsided formation that’s difficult to fit into any neat description. While there may be some post-match discussion about the numeric label (4-3-2-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2?), hopefully there will be voices echoing Klinsmann’s. Those descriptions are often too reductive, if not outright misleading and irrelevant.
More relevant is realizing what the parts were trying to do. Clint Dempsey was shading left but stayed high, allowing him to come in and play a connecting role. Michael Bradley was the highest man in midfield, with Jermaine Jones shading left near the middle’s deepest man, Kyle Beckerman. Alejandro Bedoya helped on the right in a way that made it unclear if he was a winger or a central midfielder.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Like most coaches, Klinsmann put 10 out-field players in the places that served their skills and his purpose. It was function first, a philosophy that’s always driven Klinsmann’s choices. Whatever we now want to call it is for our own benefit.
2. Protecting the defense will be as important as the defense itself – Until late, when the game opened up after the U.S.’s second goal, the team’s central defenders had a relatively easy day, with Nigerian play that was successfully funneled to the flanks rarely testing the men in the middle. With Dempsey high on the left and Bedoya often tucked in, the Super Eagles were almost pushed into going their left, drawn away from the side of the States’ defense that proved so problematic against Turkey.
Fabian Johnson wasn’t perfect at the back, but thanks to Bedoya’s hard work, Nigeria was often left with corner kicks, unable to bring the ball back into the center. With Beckerman and Jones in the middle, most attempts to break through the U.S. block led to turnovers, with quick connections to Bradley and Dempsey springing the team’s counter.
For all the debate about who’ll start next to Besler and which makeshift left back should get the call in Brazil, Saturday reminded us of another important lesson in defending. If the forwards and midfielders do their jobs, the players you start along the back may not be the most important part. As the game’s final minutes showed us, those players certainly matter, but defense starts higher up the field.
3. An in form Jozy Altidore can end matches early – Let’s skip over the first goal. As nice as it was to see Altidore get on the scoresheet, that was a gimme – a pretty strong argument against the lark that there are no easy goals.
The second goal, however, was the back-breaker. Perhaps Vincent Enyeama should have stopped it, and Efe Ambrose certainly should have kept Alitdore from coming onto his strong foot, but with an authoritative blast that took advantage of their mistakes, Altidore put the match away. The final 22 minutes were the match’s denouement.
Thanks to Altidore, turning a Michael Bradley diagonal into an insurance goal, Saturday’s match was over by the 68th minute. Nigeria may have found some late consolation, but given the open play before Victor Moses’ goal, both teams knew Altidore had delivered the result.