It’s one of the point of sports, isn’t it? The belief that on any given day, something amazing can happen for the team you root for, which will enable them to win and that result will inexplicably make your life better.
There is nothing like hope.
The U.S. soccer team now has more hope.
Playing like a team that could advance from the Group of Death — official name: Group G — in the World Cup, the U.S. easily defeated Nigeria 2-1 on Saturday in Jacksonville, Fla. The attack was opportunistic. The midfield was creative and energetic. And the defense solid when it needed to be.
Those are the ingredients of hope.
Jozy Altidore scored both U.S. goals, matching his entire output for club team Sunderland in last year’s nightmarish campaign.
He also illustrated why he and Michael Bradley are the two most indispensable players in the lineup.
On the first goal, Altidore drifted into the box, where all he had to do was tap in a cross from Fabian Johnson, who made an excellent lung-bursting run from right back into the penalty box.
On the second, he showed all of the tools that helped him score 31 goals in Holland two years ago. He latched onto an intelligent chip from Bradley, had enough touch and strength to get by a defender and quickly rifled a shot low into the near corner. It was a world-class goal and the U.S. will need more like it to secure one of two spots in a World Cup group that includes Germany, Portugal and Ghana.
The U.S. will open against Ghana on June 16. The game against Nigeria, which, rankings aside, is considered the toughest of the five African teams in the World Cup, was scheduled to offer a similar test as the Black Stars, as Ghana’s team is known.
The U.S. passed with flying colors. It hardly means an automatic three points against Ghana, but it does provide more hope than the U.S. showed in its first warm-up game against Azerbaijan.
A day after saying tactics were overrated, coach Jurgen Klinsmann showed his acumen for that part of the game by starting three holding midfielders, with two always remaining in front of the back four. The other, Bradley, pushed up the field to look for Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Alejandro Bedoya or Johnson, who has locked down right back with his ability to roam the field.
With two players in front of them, the back four of Johnson, Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler and DaMarcus Beasley looked much more cohesive. Of course, having Beasley on the field and not the erratic Timothy Chandler helped.
It is the formation that the U.S. is likely to use in its first two Group G games. The U.S. point totals from the first two games will likely determine the formation and personnel for the last game in the group stage against Germany.
Now that Klinsmann has shown his tactical chops, he needs to work on his motivational chops.
He is getting criticized for being honest. He told the New York Times that the U.S. can’t win the World Cup because it isn’t at the level of other teams.
Well, he’s right. The U.S. isn’t close in skill level to Brazil, Argentina, Germany or other countries.
But to say it publicly on the eve of the World Cup wasn’t smart.
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Around Group G: How have Germany, Ghana and Portugal, the other teams in the U.S. World Cup group, looked?
Despite a 6-1 win over Armenia, Germany hasn’t played as well as expected. They were held 2-2 by Cameroon in their previous game. They open World Cup play on June 16 against Portugal.
They also suffered one impactful injury in the loss of midfielder Marco Reus. A team as deep as Germany can lose Reus and plug in Mesut Ozil. Don’t feel too bad for them.
Ghana was beaten by Holland 1-0 on May 31 and will play South Korea on Monday.
The Black Stars struggled against Holland, but that’s not a surprise. The Dutch are capable of beating anyone when they are focused. Ghana put just one shot on goal, while allowing five.
Portugal has also had mixed success in its warm-ups.
Portugal tied Greece 0-0 in its first friendly before defeating Mexico 1-0 on an injury-time header by defender Bruno Alves. But “El Tri” looked the better side for most of the match. Portugal struggled to build attacks without Cristiano Ronaldo, who sat out the game to nurse a sore knee.
Portugal hasn’t said if Ronaldo will be ready for the World Cup. It’s doubtful that he won’t play. He’s arguably the world’s best player and is in his prime. Portugal will play Ireland on Tuesday.