photo by John Dorton/ISIphotos.com
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — As the U.S. Men’s National Team discussed their final send-off series friendly vs. Nigeria on Friday, one familiar name continuously kept popping up.
That familiar name, and familiar foe, was Ghana.
The U.S. is set to finish off its stateside World Cup preparations on Saturday evening at EverBank Field, but the friendly against Nigeria is as much of a dry-run for the Americans’ Group G opener against Ghana as it as a way for U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann to further fine-tune things before departing for Brazil.
No, Nigeria will not offer an exact picture of what the Americans will see when they battle Ghana for a third straight World Cup on June 16 in Natal. But the match will offer as close to a preview as possible, and one that will show the U.S. where improvements still need to be made.
“Similarities in terms of their style of play, in terms of their individual talent,” said Klinsmann of how Nigeria compares to Ghana. “They have very dangerous attacking players, which do a lot of work and make different decisions. They switch sides, they counter-break you very fast in transition offensively, they’re very fit, they’re very physical, which is good for us because it will give us a wake-up call.
“This is what at this point now we really need, but it’s also a team, and every team has also its weaknesses that we try to kind of utilize and benefit from if possible.
“That gives us a little bit of an indication how to approach Ghana, how to beat Ghana, which is so crucial for us to start the World Cup with,” Klinsmann added. “We see a lot of similar things ahead of us and I think if you watched (Ghana’s) game with Greece, they have so much individual talent, technically, very, very gifted, and always calm on the ball. But sometimes also a little bit overconfident with their technique that we hopefully can utilize on our end.”
Just as intriguing as how the Americans handle the Nigerians in the hot and humid temperatures that are expected on Saturday – and which will replicate what awaits the U.S. in Brazil - is the formation Klinsmann trots out. Klinsmann has gone with a 4-4-2 diamond midfield setup in the U.S.’s last three games, and the results have been undeniably mixed.
The last friendly vs. Turkey may have ended in a 2-1 triumph for the Americans, but it showed some defensive vulnerability on counterattacks that might lead Klinsmann to go with a different look against a quick Nigeria team also poses a threat on the break.
“I think there are pros and cons, like with every system, but it doesn’t really matter what shape we have, what system we have,” said Klinsmann. “It matters how we connect with one another on the field. It’s the same with just 10 men, we defend as a whole unit and you move forward, you keep it compact. No matter what shape it has in that instance I think we can easily adjust to a 4-4-2 diamond, we can go from a diamond into a flat midfield four, we can go into a 4-2-3-1, which becomes a 4-3-3.
“I think all these discussions about different systems are actually not up to speed anymore, because systems are not the key anymore like it was maybe 10-15 years ago. … I think the trend is definitely to go away from the system discussion. It doesn’t lead you anywhere. … It sounds always pretty cool when you talk about 4-3-3, 4-4-2, 4-4-2 diamond, but it’s absolutely useless at the end of the day.”
Useless or not, the Americans will need to show drastic improvements in several areas. The chemistry and understanding between players all over the field need to be better than they were against Turkey, the team as a whole needs to deliver an improved defensive performance, and the attack needs to continue to work on creating chances from the run of play.
There is plenty of room to grow, and the U.S. is more than aware of that.
“We’ve been able to get wins and still everybody in the locker room knows we need to improve,” said midfielder Kyle Beckerman. “I think that’s a good sign of a team. We’re going to the videos, we’re watching what we did good and we’re trying to continue that, and the things we did bad, we’re looking at those and then we’re going to try and improve them.”
While the game might not mean much in terms of the final result, it will likely hold special significance for goalkeeper Tim Howard. Howard is expected to earn his 100th cap in the match, making him the 15th U.S. player to reach that milestone and adding another memorable moment in an international career full of them.
“It’s special,” said Howard. “That’s probably an understatement, (but) it’s not really about the single game so much as you look back on the other 99. It’s a proud moment for myself and my family. I’m excited that it’s happening now during this process because it’s just a great time for the team, everyone’s excited for the World Cup and wants to come, and I could think of no better place to do it.”
Howard is all but guaranteed to be in between the pipes on Saturday against Nigeria in front of what is expected to be a crowd of close to 50,000 – a record for a U.S. match in the southeast – and it appears that Klinsmann will go with as close to a strong lineup as is available.
One player, however, that could miss out entirely is Brad Davis. The wide midfielder suffered a minor knock at the beginning of Friday’s public training session and it limited him to individual work with a trainer for much of the practice.
Regardless of who starts and the fact that the match is being used to gauge where the Americans currently stand, Klinsmann is not planning on fielding the lineup that he has in mind for the first World Cup bout in Brazil. After all, this is one of his final chances to experiment and see which players stand where before that highly-anticipated date with the Ghanians.
“We’ll still use this game as seeing things and giving players an opportunity to be out on the field and fight for that spot,” said Klinsmann. “Do we have a lineup in mind (for Ghana)? Absolutely. Every coach has that at this point. But still, this is why you have the send-off games, friendly games, to give minutes to players that are right there and you want to see them also perform.”