The 45th ranked Super Eagles offer up an underrated challenge leading up to the tourney in Brazil. The reigning African champions boast a diverse squad that play professionally in 13 different leagues and are led by Premier League stars Jon Obi Mikel, Peter Odemwinge, and Joseph Yobo. In warmup matches to date, they have been solid if unspectacular in keeping clean sheets against Mexico and Greece but managing only 3 draws out of 3 matches (one of which was the subject of a match-fixing probe).
At least on paper, Nigeria will offer the stiffest and most physical defense the US will face until the World Cup. It will be interesting to see how the Yanks cope with 90 minutes from a physical team in the heat and humidity of Jacksonville with the game slated to play in the mid-80's with high humidity and a strong chance of rain. As it happens, these conditions will closely mimic that of the environment of Manaus, so a good result here should project very well against a Portugal team who will not be nearly as well acclimated. Here's some other things I'll be watching for in the final tuneup:
1. How about this heat? I am planning on touching on a highly speculative Juergen Klinsmann piece in the future. Until then, the match against Nigeria will be a great litmus test of one of the prime pillars of Klinsmann's master strategy. Even though it will be tempered by the fact that he can (and probably will) utilize 6 subs instead of the allotted 3 for an official match in tournament competition, the fitness and recovery regime's efficacy as well as the players' commitment to pressure tactics will be tested from the 2nd half on. If we see high energy from the 60th minute on (especially from players who were in the XI), I think it bodes extremely well for our chances in Brazil.
2. Defensive shape. The defense has been generally good in the first two pre-World Cup friendlies. Sure, you can point to minor lapses and some gaps on the wings, and you can point to an egregious error by Timmy Chandler that led to the penalty which killed a second consecutive clean sheet, but generally, the defense has performed adequately. The centerbacks have been generally adequate to good, and despite an obvious slip, Chandler hasn't looked horrible on the left.
That said, Chandler seems to naturally pinch off of the wing too far. He also looks a little awkward playing on the left as he isn't quite the two-footed maestro that Fabian Johnson is (how dare he!). Boiling it down, the right-footed Johnson if our best choice on the left, but it looks like we need him on the right against Ronaldo (unless he switches sides or cannot play). DeMarcus Beasley is our most natural, most nostalgic, and most jingoistic choice, but he's lacking the physicality you would like on set pieces. That leaves Timmy, who is young, physical, talented, has good size for a winger. I'd love to see Timmy Chandler play 90 minutes in the heat and not fade, and I think he'll get another shot here to prove he can. As per usual, left back will be the most scrutinized piece of the eleven, but you have to feel good that we have options and quality at this spot like we haven't had in modern USMNT history.
3. Flipping the Diamond- man-marking Bradley. After the game, Turkish coach Fatih Terim praised Michael Bradley, saying: "Bradley is a very good player. He has the playmaking skills . . . But I didn’t have any ideas of man marking him."
Part of the idea of the Diamond is dedicating the better of the 2 way midfielders (Bradley, Bradley, Bradley, 'I can't believe anyone bitched about nepotism' Bradley) into a tactically determinate attacking position when the field flips. I have been one of a select few who have made the entirely non-sheik to plant my flag on Jermaine Jones over Kyle Beckerman.
In the diamond, Beckerman sure does look prettier playing the fixed role in front of the back 4. It looks like he was born for the role and has played it for years. Fact: he has! Another fact, he's not nearly as good at the defensive duties as Jermaine Jones. And so it's a push...until
Bradley is a very good player. Maybe we should mark him. So what happens when Bradley gets chased all over the field? We could have the disciplined Beckerman clearing up messes and playing out of danger. We could also have a top level central midfielder who now finds an absurd level of space to work in with the opposing side's destroyer drawn far away from the back line. Jermaine Jones gives you the a lesser option as a pure d-mid, but as a pick your poison guy, he deters man-marking of Bradley. And if Bradley is marked out of the game, Jones has shown more ability to join the attack and more ability to be dangerous than Kyle Beckerman. Let's hope he keeps those yellow cards to a minimum.
Projected Starting XI
Prediction: USMNT 2: Nigeria 1