The U.S. men’s national team has been in a slump for pretty much all of 2014. The team has looked vulnerable on defense, weak in possession in the midfield, and wasteful in their attacking third.
This had caused me to write rather pessimistically about the Americans’ chances of escaping a World Cup group that includes a heralded German team, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, and the United States’ tormentors from the last two World Cups, Ghana.
I take everything back. The U.S. national team that beat fellow World Cup qualifiers Nigeria 2–1 on Saturday was a different side from the one that had slouched through the first half of the year.
The team that Jürgen Klinsmann fielded against the African champions was confident in the back, in control the entire game against probably the strongest side it has played this year, and creative and dangerous in attack. Klinsmann seems to have unlocked the key to fortifying his defense by shifting Michael Bradley into an attacking midfield position, and bringing on 32-year-old World Cup rookie Kyle Beckerman as a holding midfielder to pair with Jermaine Jones. This strategy worked perfectly on Saturday, as the backline had the support it so clearly needed in the previous two friendly victories over less-than-stellar Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Much more importantly, the defenders themselves looked comfortable for the first time since January. The key stroke seems to have been returning DaMarcus Beasley to the left side of the defense, and standing by the new center-back pairing of Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron despite their struggles to find a rhythm against Turkey and Azerbaijan. It seems as though the Stoke defender and Sporting Kansas City center back just needed some time to get used to one another, time Klinsmann wisely gave them. Fabian Johnson continued to look brilliant defensively and sweeping forward from right back, adding an assist to the goal he scored against Turkey.
Klinsmann seemed to settle the matter of who his starting left back would be against Ghana before the game, declaring it was Beasley. Either way, the 32-year-old former winger settled the matter with his performance. He is now all but certain to play in his fourth World Cup, joining the likes of Pelé and Diego Maradona in the four-timer club.
The biggest change from the previous three friendlies, against Mexico, Azerbaijan, and Turkey, was not that the defense didn’t make mistakes, but that defenders actually recovered from those mistakes and covered for their teammates’ errors. Whenever the Nigerians took advantage of some American slip to create a bit of space in dangerous positions, a member of the U.S. backline made a strong, chance-preventing tackle. In previous games, those opportunities would have resulted in shots on goal.
With the extra defensive cover, Bradley felt the freedom to roam higher up the field. That led to an aggressive, pressing style from the U.S. that could be very attractive to watch in Brazil. Oh, yeah, and Jozy Altidore scored his first goal in six months, and then another. But that was no big whoop.
Klinsmann may want to experiment some more in the team’s final pre-World Cup scrimmage, an unofficial, closed-doors friendly with potential second-round opponents Belgium. But if I were him, I would play the exact same lineup against Ghana as against Nigeria.
The main questions about this team going into the opener against Ghana have to do with fitness and defensive substitutes.* Fitness didn’t appear to be an issue against Nigeria, with the team pressing hard until the 90th minute. But if Beasley and Beckerman start, as I expect they will, that will be five players older than 30 in the United States’ starting 11. At some point, some of those guys will need to rest. Whether or not there is enough defensive cover on the bench is still questionable after Omar Gonzalez had another rough showing. DeAndre Yedlin could end up becoming a key man there, but the 20-year-old is still very green, with just four international caps.
My current wishful thinking is that Klinsmann knew all along what side he wanted to select, and all of his previous tinkering was just to give some of the older guys some rest and to play things close to his oversize vest. If Team USA can maintain this level of play and confidence in Natal, Manaus, and Recife, then U.S. fans could be in for a longer, more enjoyable summer than anyone expected.
*Correction, June 9, 2014: This sentence originally misstated that the U.S. World Cup opener was against Brazil.