JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The U.S. soccer team is hoping one African club will teach them a thing or two about another.
The Americans will use their final send-off series game against Nigeria on the night of June 7 to get better prepared for their World Cup opener against Ghana on June 16.
Coach Jurgen Klinsmann called Nigeria a team “that will really give us a lot of answers to many of your questions.”
The U.S. will use the friendly at EverBank Field to settle its World Cup lineup and maybe quell concerns about its sometimes shaky defense. More importantly, it will provide the Americans with a glimpse of what they will face against Ghana in Brazil.
“Tactically, they’re very similar to Ghana, and we’re going out there to try to understand what an African team is all about, how they use their speed, their power, their skills,” defender Geoff Cameron said.
Klinsmann broke down the matchup in greater detail, saying Nigeria and Ghana plays similar, fast and physical styles and have equally dangerous strikers.
“They counter-break you very fast in transition defensively, they’re fit, they’re very physical, which is good for us because it will give us a little bit of a wake-up call now because this is what, at this point, now we really need,” Klinsmann said.
“Gives us a little bit of indication of how to approach Ghana, how to beat Ghana, which is so crucial for us to start the World Cup with.”
Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi even acknowledged that playing his team, which features talented forwards Victor Moses and Peter Odemwingie, could benefit the U.S. down the road.
“I think Nigeria, Ghana, we play similar football,” Keshi said. “I think it’s going to be a good thing for the United States. The fact that they have Ghana in their group, I think they should be able to capitalize on that and make use of the best out of it.”
Nigeria is coming off consecutive draws, a 2-2 tie against Scotland last week and a scoreless one against Greece on June 3.
The U.S., meanwhile, beat No. 85 Azerbaijan 2-0 in San Francisco last week and topped No. 39 Turkey 2-1 in New Jersey on June 1. The 18th-ranked Americans have spent much of the week working out in Florida’s sweltering heat and humid while getting ready for the 44th-ranked Super Eagles.
Klinsmann insisted many position battles remain open.
“We’ll still use this game as seeing things and giving players an opportunity to be out there on the field and to fight for that spot,” he said. “Do we have a (Ghana) lineup in mind? Absolutely. Every coach has that at this point. Still, this is why you have these send-off games, friendly games. You give minutes to players that are right there and you want to see how they perform.”
Although goalkeeper Tim Howard has his position locked up, he will be in the spotlight. The veteran will earn his 100th cap on June 7, becoming the 15th U.S. player to accomplish that feat.
“It’s a proud moment for myself and my family,” Howard said. “I’m excited that it’s happening now during this process because this is a great time for the team. Everyone’s excited for the World Cup and wants to come. I couldn’t think of no better place to do it.”
Of course, the best way to celebrate would be to finish with a clean sheet.
The Americans were far from perfect against Turkey, giving up several decent scoring chances early in the first half. The defense settled down later, but the rocky start caused more conversation and maybe more concern about what many believe is the team’s glaring weakness heading into Brazil.
The back line’s inexperience has been a popular theme since Klinsmann announced his 23-man roster last month. This is the first time since 1990 the U.S. heads to a World Cup with no central defenders having played previous minutes in soccer’s showcase event.
“There’s a lot of stuff that we need to get fixed and done and fine-tuned,” Klinsmann said. “It’s not just the back line. But if you give Turkey that amount of chances in a game, then you know that you have to fix a lot of stuff the day after. We have to minimize the mistakes the closer we get to the Ghana game because mistake in the World Cup cost you really.
“Turkey didn’t take advantage of our mistakes thankfully. Hopefully (Saturday) is the next step in minimizing mistakes and getting better connected. … Hopefully it looks better in many ways.”
(MARK LONG, AP Sports Writer)