photo by John Todd/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — If the final send-off series friendly is anything to go by, the U.S. Men’s National Team looks plenty ready for its World Cup opener vs. Ghana.
The U.S. closed out World Cup preparations on Saturday with a 2-1 victory over Nigeria at EverBank Field in the Americans’ final friendly before heading to Brazil. Jozy Altidore bagged a brace to end a goal-less drought that extended over 27 games for club and country, and the American defense put together an organized performance before conceding on a late penalty kick to Victor Moses.
Altidore scored on each side of halftime in a match played in front of a crowd of 52,033 that marked the largest turnout for a U.S. friendly in the southeast. The veteran forward first netted on a tap-in following a feed from Fabian Johnson just after the half-hour mark, and doubled the U.S. lead with a blast in the 68th. The goals were Altidore’s 22nd and 23rd, respectively, at the international level.
The match saw goalkeeper Tim Howard earn his 100th appearance with the U.S., and was played under hot and humid conditions that will replicate what the Americans will experience at the World Cup. It also improved Jurgen Klinsmann’s side to 3-0 in their send-off series after victories over Azerbaijan and Turkey.
“It took us a while to get into the game because we couldn’t keep the ball the first 20-25 minutes, long enough to kind of play out of the situation and switch sides and make it open,” said Klinsmann. “Once we understood to make the field more wide, we stretch it, we looked better. We started then to get into a flow, better combinations, we started to play more simple, one-two touches from the back into midfield, finding Jozy and playing from his presence on.
“Obviously, it’s a wonderful message to see that Jozy now put the thing in the net and that gives him a big smile at the right time now.”
Altidore found the back of the net for the first time since doing so for in Sunderland’s match vs. Chelsea on Dec. 4 on a well-worked sequence in the 31st minute.
Some nice combination passing and movement opened up Nigeria’s defense for a rare U.S. chance in the first half, with Jermaine Jones finding Alejandro Bedoya on the right flank to start the sequence. Bedoya collected the pass and then poked the ball to an onrushing Fabian Johnson before the right back hit a low cross to a wide open Altidore.
“The team play has always been good,” said Altidore. “I think that’s something we’ve always been good at in the past couple of years. We’ve improved on it dramatically.”
Altidore doubled the scoring midway through the second half after Michael Bradley hit a sublime pass over the top that left the U.S. forward isolated on Nigeria defender and captain Joseph Yobo. Altidore then dribbled inside of Yobo, and proceeded to rifle a shot inside the near post past a helpless Vincent Enyeama.
“(Michael and I) have that relationship: He knows where I’m at all the time and it was a great ball,” said Altidore. “I just tried to bring it down and it was set up a chance for myself or I knew Clint (Dempsey) is always around the box.
“In that particular moment I saw the better option was the shot instead of to pass it, so I shot.”
The striker’s brace gave the U.S. a lead after initially struggling to connect passes in the first 25 minutes of the match. Deployed in a 4-3-2-1 formation that saw players in the midfield and attack move freely, the Americans initially lost the possession battle but held firm defensively before settling into the game.
“I think we started off a little bit lethargic, but I think that comes with everything that we’ve done,” said Bedoya, who saw a curled effort in the first half just miss the top right corner. “We’ve been working our butts off the last couple of weeks and, obviously, the heat probably slows things down in terms of tempo of the game. We started off a little bit slow, but I think we built it up.”
The U.S. created more of the clear chances in the first half, but Nigeria had opportunities of its own. Most of those came via long-range shots that did little to trouble Howard, but the Nigerians came close to finding an equalizer in the 44th minute on a header from Eric Efe Ambrose that an alert Howard smothered.
The Americans could have taken a two-goal lead three minutes before Altidore’s strong strike did the job, but Dempsey was stoned by Enyeama on a one-on-one opportunity.
A win looked to be secure up until centerback Matt Besler was called for a foul on Moses inside the penalty area in the 85th minute. Moses then converted the ensuing chance from 12 yards out, marking the second straight friendly in which the U.S. had the game by the scruff of the neck before conceding a late spot kick to give the opposition a small glimmer of hope.
“It’s a tough one to give up. You never want to give up goals,” said Besler. “But at the end of the day, we won the game. To be honest, that’s all I really care about. I’m disappointed that we couldn’t get the shutout for Tim, but he’ll tell you the same thing.”
With their stateside World Cup preparations now complete, the Americans will travel to Sao Paulo on Sunday before facing Ghana in their Group G opener on June 16.
What did you think of the U.S.’s 2-1 win vs. Nigeria? Who impressed/disappointed you? Think the Americans are ready for their match against Ghana?
Share your thoughts below.