Jozy Altidore's scoring slump is over, just in time for the World Cup.
The U.S. striker scored goals either side of halftime to propel the U.S. to a 2-1 victory over Nigeria in the Americans' final tune-up game ahead of the World Cup. And while the first goal came from the simplest of tap-ins, his second was a blast from 15 yards that revealed a much higher level of confidence than he had shown at club level with Sunderland this past season.
Victor Moses scored on a late penalty, to bring the visitors close, but the U.S. was able to secure the victory.
The result will provide immense relief to those fretting over Altidore's form. But as encouraging as Altidore's performance was, the play of the backline provided even more hope that the U.S. can do some damage in Brazil. The match witnessed greater defensive solidity thanks to a cagier approach from the U.S. team than in their previous two warm-up matches. In attack, the Americans continued with some of the same elements of the diamond midfield, with Kyle Beckerman flanked by Jermaine Jones and Alejandro Bedoya, and Michael Bradley more advanced.
But in defense, the U.S. formation morphed into more of a 4-1-4-1, with both Clint Dempsey and Bradley dropping back to help get more numbers around the ball, leaving Altidore as the lone forward. Overall, it provided the U.S. with an almost perfect balance between defense and attack, at least until a late flurry of substitutions eroded some of the on-field chemistry.
Chances were scarce for both sides early on, despite Nigeria having an edge in possession. The best opportunity from the exchanges came in the 23rd minute when Jones and Dempsey combined to play Bradley into space, but goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama was on hand to palm the ensuing shot wide.
The U.S. seemed comfortable with the tempo overall, as it looked to break quickly when possession was won. Yet it was a slick buildup that produced the Americans' opener. Geoff Cameron played Jones in space, and he fed Bedoya on the wing. The U.S. midfielder then passed to Johnson on the run, and his pass across the box found Altidore wide open to tap in from close range.
The U.S. nearly added a second when a corner kick fell to DaMarcus Beasley in the box, but he could only fire over from 12 yards.
Nigeria's best chance of the half came off a set piece one minute before halftime, as the Americans' newly instituted zonal marking system showed some fragility. Efe Ambrose evaded the attentions of Dempsey and Cameron, but the subsequent header was right Howard, who corralled the ball after an initial fumble.
The second half began with a greater sense of urgency from Nigeria, which resulted in a few turnovers, but no clear chances. The U.S. also had more opportunities on the break, but some wayward passing by Jones and Bedoya spoiled those openings.
Dempsey nearly scored in the 65th minute when put through by Bradley, but the U.S. padded its lead three minutes later thanks to Altidore's second. Bradley played a gorgeous ball over the top that Altidore chested down into the box. He created space for himself by cutting the ball back, and beat Enyeama cleanly to the near post.
With Bradley growing in influence, the U.S. continued to press the attack but couldn't find a third. Nigeria nearly scored in the 83rd minute when substitute Emmanuel Emenike saw his low drive well saved by Howard. But visitors then pulled a goal back three minutes later thanks to Moses' penalty. With the game wide open, Nigeria countered through Emenike. He fed the ball to Moses, who danced around Cameron before he was hauled down by Matt Besler. Moses converted the ensuing penalty easily, freezing Howard.
The U.S. was able to see the match out, and the win marked the first time that the Americans had triumphed in all three send-off games. The win should also give the Americans plenty of belief heading into its World Cup opener against Ghana on June 16.
Player ratings: (0-10)
G Tim Howard, 6.5 -- Wasn't really tested until late, but was perfectly positioned to stop the shots he faced. Did well to save Emenike's low drive.
D DaMarcus Beasley, 6.5 -- Provided a high level of security on the left side. Was beaten a couple of times, but recovered well to still break up those plays. Steady on the ball as well.
D Matt Besler, 6 -- A nice bounce-back performance was marred by his foul on Moses that led to the penalty. That said, he stepped up well to break up plays and was calm on the ball.
D Geoff Cameron, 5 -- His pass to Jones started the sequence that led to Altidore's goal, but had some anxious moments, especially in terms of marking on set pieces. Also was beaten in the run-up to the penalty.
D Fabian Johnson, 5.5 -- The timing of his runs forward remains impeccable, as was his pass to Altidore. But he didn't always excel defensively, and had more than one giveaway that led to a Nigeria counter.
M Kyle Beckerman, 6.5 -- Aside from one instance when he was caught in possession, Beckerman shielded the backline well and provided Jones and Bradley with the freedom to get forward.
M Jermaine Jones, 6.5 -- Looks like Jones has finally found his perfect position for the U.S. team. Contributed on both sides of the ball, and tracked back to break up some promising Nigeria attacks. Only nit was some misplaced passes on the break.
M Clint Dempsey, 6 -- Didn't get on the score sheet, but showed good energy, and was stoned by Enyeama on one breakaway attempt.
M Michael Bradley, 7.5 -- Had a couple of turnovers early, but he did link up well with Dempsey and Altidore, and got stronger as the game went on. He sprung Dempsey on a breakaway, and later set up Altidore's second.
M Alejandro Bedoya, 5 -- Blew hot and cold with his passes, though he did well to spot Johnson prior to the goal. Provided some badly needed defensive cover when Johnson ventured forward, but on the ball needed to make better decisions.
F Jozy Altidore, 8 -- Did his usual bit holding the ball up and linking up with Dempsey a few times. The difference this time was his efforts were rewarded with two goals. Looked loads more confident following his first tally.
Graham Zusi, 5.5 -- Took up some good positions, but his deliveries from the wing needed to be more accurate. Did well to set up Diskerud with a late chance.
Mix Diskerud, 5.5 -- Had a couple of good chances late, but his touch and shooting let him down. Connected his passes well.
Timothy Chandler, 5.5 -- Got forward on a few runs, but needed to curb that instinct late in the game.
Omar Gonzalez, 4 -- Had one communication mix-up with Howard, and didn't seem to be on the same page with Besler. Beaten for pace by Emenike in the run-up to the penalty.
Chris Wondolowski, NR -- Late cameo for the San Jose striker.