U.S. hopes unpredictability is an advantage at the World Cup
From the moment the U.S. team kicked off its pre-World Cup training camp nearly a month ago in California, the focus has been peaking at the right time -- namely, its all-important Group G opener against Ghana on June 16.
That didn't stop the hand-wringing after a predictably sluggish send-off series debut against lowly Azerbaijan, even if the U.S. won 2-0. It didn't stop the chatter about the fragility of the hodgepodge back line after a 2-1 victory over Turkey in their second tuneup, either.
Saturday's final dress rehearsal versus Cup-bound Nigeria, on the other hand, was a different story -- particularly during a hope-inspiring stretch of the second half that ESPN play-by-play announcer Ian Darke called "the most impressive of the Jurgen Klinsmann era."
For the first time in a long time -- perhaps since the World Cup berth-clinching win versus Mexico in September -- the U.S. displayed the sharpness, quick thinking and, most important, the defensive cohesion that will be the backbone if it is to surprise the world and survive what many consider the most fearsome first-round foursome among the eight groups in Brazil.
In short, the U.S. team arrived in São Paulo Monday morning in a good place.
"I think we've accomplished all of our goals with this send-off series," defender Matt Besler told reporters after the 2-1 win in Jacksonville, Florida. "From the fitness side, the physical side, the mental side, and at the end of the day, we're 3-0. That's really all that matters."
With all due respect to Besler, who was whistled for a late penalty against the African champs -- just as Geoff Cameron had been six days earlier against Turkey -- what really matters is how the United States shows on the planet's biggest stage. A week before its opener, that's anyone's guess.
But as much as Klinsmann continues to make adjustments on the fly -- such as using yet another new formation in the Nigeria match -- it's also clear that the coach planned his preparations methodically.
Stanford University was selected to host training camp because the mild early summer weather in the Bay Area allowed the team to be worked hard. Friendly opponents were scheduled to become more difficult as preparations went on.
"Those were the games that we needed," Klinsmann said Saturday. "We were fortunate to have the progression with Azerbaijan, into Turkey, into Nigeria. That worked out really well."
Playing a closed-door scrimmage against title dark horse Belgium on Thursday will continue the process and provide another stern test. "What we've been working on is really the compactness of the whole, especially the defensive unit," Klinsmann said. "We have to make the spaces as tight as possible."
They also have to improve the speed at which they transition into the attack and do a better job of maintaining possession early -- something they struggled with against Nigeria -- no matter how the coach lines them up, formation and personnel-wise, in Natal, site of their first match.
And the fact that the Americans remain relatively unpredictable on the eve of the tournament isn't necessarily a bad thing. After all, if the U.S. players don't know what to expect, how can opposing coaches?
Besides, Klinsmann has always had a habit of changing things on a whim. Except it's never really a whim. In his view, the ability to adjust to constantly changing circumstances is crucial to his team's chances of success.
If last month's decision to cut Landon Donovan and six others before the first of the three send-off games seemingly came out of nowhere -- Klinsmann had denied the previous afternoon that any cull was imminent -- the coach was coldly calculated and acted swiftly as soon as he was sure that he didn't want the United States' all-time scoring leader and the other six on his final roster for Brazil.
Nobody's talking about Donovan's omission right now. That will change if the Americans don't play to the top of their abilities in Brazil, but Besler insists they arrive with "confidence and with momentum."
"We worked really hard from a fitness standpoint to be fit and strong -- Jurgen's stressed that since the start of camp," said striker Jozy Altidore, who had two goals in the final tuneup to break a six-month scoring drought. "I think we're going to peak at the right moment."
For the U.S., that more than anything will be the measure of success this month.