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Match Report

Michael Bradley on Win: "The Fun Starts Now"

Led by Jozy Altidore's two goals, the U.S. men's national team looked confident in a 2-1 victory over Nigeria. ASN's Mike McCall spoke to Michael Bradley and others about the contest.

BY Mike McCall Posted
June 07, 2014
10:53 PM
JACKSONVILLE, Fla.—It was a near-perfect send off.

In front of 52,033 fans the U.S. got two drought-ending goals from Jozy Altidore, topped a Brazil-bound team, and finished its stretch of three pre-World Cup friendlies unbeaten with a 2-1 win over Nigeria.

Ask one of the fans in the EverBank Field stands—the supporters who raised chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” into the early evening air as players took a lap to show their appreciation—and it felt like an emphatic statement nine days ahead of the tournament opener against Ghana.

But within the team, there was a different takeaway.

“We said to each other in the locker room: The fun starts now,” midfielder Michael Bradley said. “These games are always tricky because they’re important in the sense that you want to use them to sharpen up and build confidence. It’s important to take them seriously, but the reality is they mean nothing.

“It’s important to get what you can out of them, but the reality is it’s all about June 16 now.”

What the U.S. could take from this was a great outing from Altidore, a promising midfield combination, and a solid defensive performance aside from the hiccup that handed Victor Moses a penalty kick goal in the 86th minute.

Coach Jurgen Klinsmann harkened back to the early days of his tenure by playing three central midfielders: Bradley, Jermaine Jones, and Kyle Beckerman.

In what worked as a 4-3-2-1 defensively, Beckerman played in front of the back line, flanked by Jones and Alejandro Bedoya, who looked to get forward and combine with Bradley, Altidore and Clint Dempsey.

That was a recipe for success, as the Yanks defended well through an opening stanza where they didn’t see much of the ball.

“It took a while to get into the game, because we couldn’t keep the ball in the first 20-25 minutes,” Klinsmann said. “Once we understood to make the field more wide and stretch it—and it almost cost me my voice—we looked better. We started to have a flow and better combinations, play more simple 1-2 touches from the back into midfield, finding Jozy and play from his presence on.”

It clicked in the 32nd minute, when Jones ran forward and sent a pass toward the right corner for Bedoya, who played it to right back Fabian Johnson near the goal line. When Johnson cut it back across goal, there was nothing but open net ahead of Altidore, who guided it home for his first goal—for club or country—in more than six months.

The 24-year-old striker added another in the 68th, controlling a long pass from Bradley, cutting back inside, and firing a sharp right-footed strike home for a 2-0 lead.

In step with Bradley, and following the script he has used for months, Altidore played down the importance of those goals by saying it “makes no difference” for his confidence.

But he did find reasons to be optimistic.

“I think the team has played really well in these three games against three good opponents,” he said. “Now, heading to the World Cup, Nigeria is very similar to Ghana, so if we can emulate this performance against Ghana, we can start the group off the right way.”

The U.S. led the African champions 11-7 in shots and 6-5 in shots on goal, although Nigeria did gain quite a few scoring chances by virtue of a 10-6 edge in corner kicks.

A string of three set pieces near the end of the first half led to two tests of goalkeeper Tim Howard, but he came up with four big saves in his 100th cap.

Perhaps the best second-half chance belonged to Dempsey in the 65th, when Bradley delivered a perfect through-ball to set up a one-on-one with the keeper, but Dempsey’s low shot couldn’t beat Vincent Enyeama.

Then, with 10 minutes to play and a 2-0 lead, Klinsmann opted for a five-man back line by bringing on Omar Gonzalez for Altidore. But taking his foot off the gas backfired.

In the 83rd minute, Gonzalez lost track of Emmanuel Emineke, forcing Howard to make a one-on-one save. And in the 86th, a host of defensive miscues led to centerback Matt Besler taking down Moses in the box and conceding a penalty, a late blemish on an otherwise solid day.

“It was a good lesson. These games go 93 or 95 minutes,” Klinsmann said. “For us, it’s important to stay focused and get the job done, finish it off. You can’t give away penalties in the last moment. But it’s good, because now we have video footage showing them what they did wrong there.”

And that’s the story of the U.S. national team’s final tune up before heading to Brazil: not getting too high on the positives, and learning lessons from the negatives.

But on a jubilant night in Jacksonville, you could forgive the crowd for feeling hopeful.

Mike McCall is an ASN contributor. Follow him on Twitter.

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