2014 FIFA World Cup, Featured, June 2014, USMNT

A Proper Send-Off: Yanks vs. Nigeria in Jacksonville- Your TYAC Preview

The US trained in the Send-Off Series today in Jacksonville.

The US trained in the Send-Off Series today in Jacksonville.

Jon Levy and Colin Udoh

First things first. For the final Send-Off Series match, we’re thrilled to have Colin Udoh of ESPN, Talksport, Supersport and many other fine publications join us. Colin is an expert on most soccer, but particularly an expert when it comes to Nigeria’s Super Eagles. He’s traveled with Nigeria for all of their pre-World Cup friendlies and will be covering the team in Brazil. Certainly a privilege to have him along.

Now, this match. Jacksonville, Florida. Final “Send-Off Series” match. Second-to-last “friendly” of the World Cup cycle, and the last one where they’ll keep score. The USA will leave for Brazil tomorrow. The game against Ghana is in ten days. The World Cup is here and the anticipation is palpable. You can see it in the player’s eyes, which we did, today, at training. 

The match is in Jacksonville for two reasons.

First, the heat and humidity are nearly a spot-on Manaus/Natal simulation. Michael Bradley commented today that while it was warm in California at the start of camp, this heat is closest to what they’ll see in Brazil. Substitutions will matter. Cramps will matter. Heat will matter. It’s the reason England, Ghana, Ecuador, South Korea and others came to Florida for friendlies and it is the first reason the US are here.

The US celebrates a goal in the rout of Scotland in Jacksonville in 2012.

The US celebrates a goal in the rout of Scotland in Jacksonville in 2012.


Second, Jacksonville earned this friendly two years ago when 43,000+ saw the Americans, behind a talismanic Landon Donovan (hat trick, assist) and a Klinsmann lineup that featured EIGHT- yes-EIGHT players who at some point in their career played CM. It was the moment many began to believe in Klinsmann’s “proactive, not reactive” style of football and it was also a seminal moment in the Landon Donovan saga. His postgame interview and statements to media outlets the week of that game set the stage for the “Sabbatical”, and Donovan was soft-spoken and almost “sad” after dominating the game, but still insisted he would give it all for his country:  “It is not a matter of “want to”, he told The Yanks Are Coming. “I don’t want to be mistaken for not caring– I care.”  But he also praised his teammates:“The goals fell to me, but don’t forget a lot of people did a lot of good things to make that happen. It was one of those nights.” Neil W. Blackmon’s full game wrap can be read here.

Tomorrow night, the US return to Jacksonville to close the “Send-Off Series.” A classy show of US Soccer’s appreciation for the crowd in May 2012 and a good test in the heat and humidity against a good, World Cup qualified team in Nigeria.

Let’s do the usuals:

Series: Second Meeting: The US lead 1-0.

Weather: HOT. 89 degrees at kick, chance of a thunderstorm or rain. High humidity. FABIAN JOHNSON MISERY INDEX: A BILLION. Huge night and test for Fabian’s durability and stamina in the heat, really. The returns most the World Cup cycle weren’t great.

Less concerned with system and tactics and more with players?

Less concerned with system and tactics and more with players?

What To Expect From The Yanks:

Let me wax poetic a bit, since this is the last match before Brazil. 

Four years ago, The Yanks Are Coming was smaller, but it was nonetheless, one of the handful of independent sites covering US Soccer (men and women) full-time. I’m not sure we fancied ourselves as anything important-we try to not take ourselves too seriously here at the home offices–but we did want to ensure that the level of debate about soccer in this country moved forward and upward. 

Today, we’re well on our way to “arriving” at where we want to be. The game stateside is soaring. MLS fandom has grown rapidly. NASL fans have tremendous support in some areas and great supporters clubs, podcasts and websites themselves. US coverage has exploded, as exemplified by Roger Bennett’s tremendous ESPN documentary on the USMNT. The level of debate about the game in this country has increased, both in volume, and in quality. 

So here’s a shout-out to another independent site- The Shin Guardian- who like us, preview each match, and while they do it differently and with a sophisticated tactical eye- they do it well, and their comments community is terrific. Here is a link to their Nigeria-USA preview, featuring Amobi Okugo of the Philadelphia Union (and next cycle, the USMNT!) on Nigeria. Worth a (long) look.

And what are we expecting from the US?

Time for a goal?

Time for a goal?

It’s time for a total team performance. That’s the challenge going into this match against a good Nigeria squad. I’m oddly optimistic, so I’ll guess I’ll write until I figure out why.

 After the first Send-Off Series match I had questions about creating clear cut scoring chances from the run of play, because Azerbaijan put eleven behind the ball and tamed the speedy US attack, perhaps Jurgen Klinsmann’s favorite part of his team. A change of opponent, change formation, and the insertion of a healthy Clint Dempsey certainly cured the ills of the first match, but an excitable back four got a little overconfident and often left too much space for the spry Turks to attack. The fact that young John Anthony Brooks was the Yanks’ best defender in the second half speaks well of the young player’s progression, but in this case it’s also a partial indictment of the players around him.

 The two aforementioned problems, along with Jozy Altidore Goal Drought 2.0, are what the USMNT needs to overcome against Nigeria, and against better opponents in the World Cup itself. But given the successful adjustments I’ve seen out of Klinsmann’s USMNT over the course of past few years, these are problems I expect will be fixed. I’m not saying Jozy’s going to bag a hat trick anytime soon, or that whatever relatively unfamiliar back four Klinsmann starts will be the second coming of the ‘06 Cannavaro crew, but I expect passable answers to all three of these problems moving forward.

 I expect to see cleaned up versions of what we saw in the first two matches when the teams kickoff in Jacksonville. Klinsmann will stick with his comfortable and effective 4-2-3-1 formation to start the match. The US will give a World Cup level defensive effort, win the possession battle (or at least be competitive in it) as the team is designed to do, and the attack will again lead to a number of chances. Some of these chances might even fall to Jozy Altidore.

 Yes, my USMNT expectations for this match are probably the greatest endorsement of Klinsmann’s managerial job that we’ve ever posted on this site. Now don’t screw it up Jurgen.

The Jones and Beckerman debate. Klinsy and Beckerman chime in...

The Jones and Beckerman debate. Klinsy and Beckerman chime in…

As for formation, some things at training today were telling. First, Klinsmann shrugged aside questions about the diamond, noting that formations change as matches progress and really formations are starting points or touchstones to guide players. Matches are about players. You can agree or disagree, but it was fascinating commentary. The actual quote:

“There are pro’s and cons, like with every system, but it doesn’t really matter what shape we have, what system we have. What matters is how we connect with one another on the field. We have to defend as a whole unit, and move forward too. You remain compact, and no matter what shape you have you adjust in game. You can easily go from a 4-4-2 diamond and go to a flat four, and then to a 4-3-2-1 which can become a 4-3-3. These discussions about different systems are not actually up to speed. Systems are not the name of the game anymore. That all changed ten to fifteen years ago and it started with Spain. They made every system look stupid, because they came up with a 4-6-0 in the European championship and people said, ‘You know, how can you do that, not even Torres is out there? Well, then they beat everybody, because three midfielders became strikers, and then move back. It was different against everybody.The trend is definitely to go away from a system discussion and instead, you have a whole team that knows how to support each other, and how to create stuff going forward. Things change. Years ago it was down to the number ten to make things happen. Maybe now it is down to the number six to make things happen, or maybe the fullbacks, so it’s all changed over the past few years.”

Take that how you will, but the tea leaves point is that the US are tinkering with a variety of formations, rather than a set system, and the Americans will continue to tinker next week in Sao Paulo when they play Belgium.

Meanwhile, I asked Kyle Beckerman about the distinctions between how he and Jermaine Jones play the “6” behind Michael Bradley in the diamond, and how the USMNT diamond differs, if at all, from the one he’s so familiar with at Real Salt Lake:

“The biggest thing really is repetition. We’ve, I’ve, been playing it for so long now it’s kind of second nature to me and us at Salt Lake, but at Salt Lake there’s a bit more freedom to roam and get into the attack and I know they’ll be players to cover when I leave certain space in front of the back. We encourage that in Salt Lake and here the number job is to sit in there and stay in front of the back four and that’s the biggest difference.”

Matt Besler will need help  from his defensive mids to better lead the gelling US defense.

Matt Besler will need help from his defensive mids to better lead the gelling US defense.

Beckerman also emphasized that whether it is he or Jones, Klinsmann has insisted that the two players help marshal communication with the still-gelling back four:

“Communication is extremely important for the whole back line and the defensive midfield position and we can get better at it. He’s insisting we get better at it. I think it definitely helps sometimes when you have new partnerships, if the defensive midfield communication is good it can make it easier. It’s something we always need to work on and something Jermaine and I are continuing to get better at and emphasizing.”

Fair to say, then, that tomorrow is about improving in those areas and Jones/Beckerman will play a critical role.

What Will We See From Nigeria:

The last two World Cups, the Super Eagles have garnered only a point each trip and left early. The goal for the African champions is to progress and/or make a better account of themselves this time around. Of the fifteen FIFA youth championships held, Nigeria has won four of them, including the 2007 and 2013 titles, and finished second another three times. The Nigerians are also the reigning champions of Africa, have one of the best World Cup pedigrees outside of Europe or South America, and a roster that features a handful of household names. Why, then, the logical question seems to be, isn’t Nigeria a serious contender in Brazil?

John Obi Mikel was transformed, and not positively, at Nigeria. Is this part of the problem?

John Obi Mikel was transformed, and not positively, at Nigeria. Is this part of the problem?

Are Nigeria, to some extent, a victim of their own youth success? Tactical expert Michael Cox has written about how European teams frequently sign promising young African players and then change their style of play, asking them to be less creative and more physical. For ages, Nigerian players have been first and foremost among the African players sought out, whether it be in Ukraine and Russia or of late, in England and France. The result is that most young African players are often shoehorned into “the Makélélé role”— named after famed French international player Claude Makélélé, who almost never crossed the halfway line—transforming into defensive midfield enforcers rather than attackers.

John Obi Mikel, who captains when longtime Barclay’s Premier League defender Joseph Yobo doesn’t, is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon. Mikel was a young, strapping lad in the No. 10 jersey, languid in style but absolutely majestic in his control of a football game . He was efficient in movement and sharp in his decision-making, finding the right pass at the right time to unlock a stubborn defense. But when Mikel moved to Chelsea, he was thrust into a conservative role, freeing up players like Frank Lampard to dictate play. Mikel returned to Nigeria a worse player. Mikel lost the creativity that catapulted him onto the world stage in the first place, in a sense. His performances for his country have been a mixed bag ever since. Yet he’s still so talented technically. And the problem isn’t limited to him– it has permeated the whole team, meaning Nigeria have extremely technical players but they’ve lost most shreds of creativity.

In Brazil, Nigeria will be without Sunday Mba, who won the African Cup of Nations just as Landon Donovan won the Gold Cup but has been left home by Stephen Keshi, who promised to shake up the side after the somewhat disappointing Confederations Cup last summer. Leading them instead will be Mikel, pacy Emmanuel Emenike, Victor Moses, Peter Odemwingie and rising CSKA Moscow star Ahmed Musa (more on him soon.)

Defensively, many ask questions but the data don’t support the worry, to some extent. Nigeria conceded the least of any team in African qualifying and in the friendlies before the World Cup thus far, the problem has been creative play and goals.

We asked Colin Udoh six more questions about Nigeria’s prospects– these were his answers:

1) Jurgen Klinsmann and others are obviously emphasizing the Ghana match, but it was quite surprising to hear him say “Nigeria is a team like Ghana,” at least on my end. Outside of both being from Africa, and one being current Africa champion and the other being a World Cup quarterfinalist- the teams seem quite different. Help our readers understand why?
Colin: Actually, the teams are not so different. Infact, you’d be hard pressed to find a more similar team to Ghana than Nigeria.
Both countries share near similar cultural identities, and the playing style is also similar. Physical, yet skilled and technical.
Major difference might be in personnel and how both sides compensate for that. Ghana are top heavy in midfield, an area where Nigeria are lacking. However, the Super Eagles have a preponderance of attacking talent, where Ghana are short.
For that reason, while Nigeria tend to attack from the off, Ghana are more likely to play on the break.
2) Obviously, the Confederations Cup was a disappointment with everything from team unity to the usually stout defense looking vulnerable at times. Stephen Keshi talked about building team unity in the time since. How’s that project going, and where is the leadership coming from?
Colin: The Confed Cup was a period of transition. Some players were being tested out, and as you can see, the likes of Oduamadi, Ideye, Ujah, Gambo Mohammed and more have been pruned from the squad and Joseph Yobo, Osaze Odemwingie, Shola Ameobi and others have come in.
There is more than enough experience and leadership from there, especially from Yobo, Ameobi and Enyeama.
3) Peter Odemwingie says he’s enjoying his “fresh start” with Keshi after a really nice spring at Stoke. How critical a figure is he now that he’s back in the fold as Nigeria look to find goals from places other than Victor Moses, Emmanuel Emenike and Victor Obinna?
Udoh: Odemwingie, as soon as he finds his feet, will be a very important part of Nigeria’s strike force. He takes the load off of Emenike. Can play as a second striker, high midfielder, or wide forward. And his ability to strike a ball with either foot is no less vital.
4) Scoring continues to be an issue, as great as the team defend. Has Keshi changed anything tactically to jump start the attack? And how much of the issues with scoring are “development-related”, in that we still see highly-technical players like Obi Mikel transformed into “Makelele role” defensive mids when they move to Europe? 
Udoh: Keshi definitely wants to see goals. Won’t change much tactically, though. Just needs to get his midfield working more to create chances, and Odemwingie to find his form
5) Tim Howard has shown vulnerability from distance as his career has progressed. Nigeria rank 1ST in the World Cup field in goals scored from distance– do you think they’ll emphasize firing away early and often in Jacksonville?
Udoh: That’s a possibility. Onazi can sure hit them from distance, as can Emenike and Odemwingie. Even Mikel too!
6) Last one: Most folks know about Victor Moses. Tell us about the next young crop of Nigerian stars to keep an eye on– specifically, how good can Ahmed Musa be?
Udoh: Look out for Uche Nwofor. Knows his way around the six yard box. Musa is quick, but currently injured.
And Onazi is some hound from hell when hunting down opposition players in possession…


In his final friendly before his final World Cup, this man is our player to watch.

In his final friendly before his final World Cup, this man is our player to watch.

US Player to Watch: DaMarcus Beasley

God help the man we affectionately refer to as Run DMB if he’s let his emotions take the same wild swings as those of his fans watching from the stands and on TV over the course of this Send-Off Series. At first it seemed that Beasley had won himself the starting left back spot with great performances in qualifying and a successful captaincy during the triumphant 2013 Gold Cup campaign. But by the time the starting eleven for the Turkey match was announced it looked like DaMarcus was the odd man out, with Fabian Johnson and the returning Timmy Chandler now the preferred full backs. Ninety minutes later we’d all seen Johnson confirm his must-start status with a particularly useful offensive display, but we’d also seen the disorganization on the backline that seems to have opened the door for Beasley’s return to the starting lineup. Thankfully for DaMarcus, guys tend to be both even-keeled and confident heading into their fourth World Cup… right? He’ll have to be both those things to win the camp battle and reclaim the left back spot.

As I mentioned above, Fab Johnson, one of the USMNT’s five best players, is a must-start in Brazil. But Fab’s flexibility means that he could start at right back, left back, or left midfield. This could be good news for Beasley, Chandler, or both of them. It could also be bad for either. Timmy Chandler, meanwhile, has been decent, but not electrifying, in his first two games back from a highly suspect national team hiatus. Perhaps most importantly with respect to Beasley’s chances, neither Germerican full back was particularly disciplined in their defensive positioning in the Turkey match over the weekend. Now I can’t say anything bad about their defending in the Azerbaijan match, because the Azeri weren’t interested in attacking, but each of the aforementioned wing defenders was a party to allowing Turkey far too much space in the attacking third. The Turks scored one goal, but our German friends (the ones that actually play for Germany) will not be so kind. Can DaMarcus step in and defend first against Nigeria without losing the offensive edge to his game? If so we might just see Fabian slide forward on the left wing, or over to the right back spot. The former would be good for Timmy Chandler, while the latter could benefit a host of hungry midfielders. But it’s all contingent on Run DMB proving he’s the guy to bring stability to that wobbly backline.

Nigeria Player to Watch: John Obi Mikel

As noted above, Mikel changed when he went to Chelsea and was lassoed. As American writers and fans struggle with the pros and cons of leaving Jermaine Jones leashed up in front of the wobbly US back four, we can still, as Zack Goldman did for this website this week,  note that the Americans have had plenty of good moments from Jones’ “Walkabout” tendencies this cycle. There’s a benefit to be had from a player who abandons system and pursues his own creative impulses. There are negatives too. But in the end, you wonder if Nigeria would have been better off if Mikel had gone elsewhere, where his natural talents would have been nurtured, not modified.

Prediction: USA 2 – 0 Nigeria

I think the team puts in an all around performance against a good Nigeria squad, filling the Yanks with confidence going into the World Cup. The guy most in need of that confidence, Jozy Altidore, finds the back of the net.

Enjoy the match, and Go USA!

Jon Levy is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at jon.f.levy@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon. Join Colin Udoh’s legion of Twitter followers at @ColinUdoh.