The United States opens their World Cup campaign a week from Monday against Ghana, and they're heading into it after a victory over Nigeria, a similar CAF opponent that's experienced more recent success. It's a good sign for Jurgen Klinsmann and co., but the 2-1 win isn't the only encouraging sign to come out of Saturday's friendly. More so than the result, USMNT fans should be thrilled about the way their team got it -- by pounding away at Nigeria, not passing circles around them.
Klinsmann sounded like an extremely naive idealist early in his tenure as United States manager, and the changes he's made have left some fans concerned that they won't be able to compete on the biggest stage. Aspiring to play like Barcelona is great, and the USMNT can get away with trying, failing and still advancing in CONCACAF qualifying. But trying to beat elite European and South American teams in a possession game at the World Cup? Well, that's just not going to happen.
By the time players get to the senior national team level, there's only so much that Klinsmann can do about their skill or lack thereof. If the United States is going to compete for a World Cup while playing a pretty passing game in the future, it'll be because of work done by MLS youth academies and Under-17 national team coaches. This team probably isn't good enough to beat Portugal and Germany by playing the way they play to beat the likes of Costa Rica and Honduras at home, and there's nothing particularly wrong with that.
The good news is that Klinsmann doesn't look like he's going to try to do that. He went a long way towards alleviating a lot of fans' worst fears about his potential naivety on Saturday, starting Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman together against Nigeria, then proceeding to beat the crap out of them while looking to break out quickly on the counter. Instead of a team married to a possession-based attack, the USMNT looked like a physical counter-attacking side that knew how to keep the ball when the situation called for it.
Graham Zusi is a very good player who will have a role to play for the U.S. in Brazil, but this team simply looked better with a different type of player on the field against Nigeria. Instead of choosing between the best of what Beckerman brings to the table and the best of what Jones brings, Klinsmann eliminated that choice by playing both of them. The duo helped give freedom to Michael Bradley, and the excellent play of Alejandro Bedoya seemed to mitigate any issues that might have arisen by dropping Zusi for a more defensive player. This USMNT looked more balanced, but not severely lacking in creativity or an ability to keep the ball.
USA vs. Nigeria
Klinsmann might spend the next four years trying to turn the United States into a team that can be competitive in the knockout stages of the World Cup by playing an ultra-attacking, high-tempo, possession-based game, but his three years of work on that style doesn't appear to have had the goal of playing that exact style at this World Cup.
Instead, what these last three years did is make the United States into a more balanced team -- they haven't forgotten how to beat the hell out of opponents and put together direct counters, but they now have the ability to do that that and keep the ball, which they struggled with at times under Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley. He hasn't beaten American counter-attacking soccer out of the Americans, he's just taught them a complimentary trick.
If the team that played against Nigeria takes the pitch against Ghana in the USMNT's World Cup opener -- with the exact same style of play in mind -- they'll be the most well-balanced United States team to ever enter the World Cup.
For that reason alone, Klinsmann already appears to be a success.