Sports Soccer

Friendly against Nigeria gives U.S. strong final tuneup for World Cup

The U.S. on Saturday will face Nigeria, a team with similarities to Ghana, its opponent in World Cup opener

The country will get one last look Saturday at the U.S. men's national team ahead of the World Cup in Brazil.

The friendly against Nigeria, though, is far from a final dress rehearsal.

The U.S. will look to show improvement from its first two send-off matches - wins against Azerbaijan and Turkey. With the U.S. team's World Cup opener set for June 16 against Ghana, there remains plenty to tweak and adjust.

The result matters, the performance matters, but what happens on the field Saturday in front a crowd of about 50,000 at Jacksonville's Everbank Field is not necessarily a telltale for what will happen in Brazil.

"We're still in the building phase," U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann said. "We still have [some] days to go. So we're not done now with all the work we're going to put in their legs and minds. . . . We've got to work, work, work. We time it, hopefully, the right way to get them all sharp, all right, all fresh for Ghana, but still we're a work in process right now."

Klinsmann said he would not use this game to get an extended look at the starting lineup, but that he expects to rotate several players. The game is designed to give minutes to the younger players, he said, and it is a chance to give "players an opportunity to get on the field and fight for a spot."

The matchup does play a crucial role, however, because it was designed to give the Americans the most realistic feel for what they will see in Brazil.

In Nigeria, the U.S. gets an opponent most similar to what it expects to face against Ghana. The Super Eagles, like Ghana, are a physical team with pace and skill, two areas that must be tested as the U.S. looks to fine-tune its back line.

Players like John Mikel Obi and Victor Moses, both of whom play professionally in England, and Emmanuel Emenike, who scored 12 goals for Turkish club Fenerbahce, make Nigeria, 44th in the FIFA world rankings, a contender to get out of Group F in the tournament.

"Obviously a very athletic team, great on the counter, they can cause some problems with us there," said U.S. midfielder Graham Zusi, whose team is ranked 13th. "Individually, they're very talented across the board."

Jacksonville, too, has provided a stage comparable to Brazil. Temperatures on Friday hovered in the upper 80s, with humidity making it feel like it was in the 90s.

With the stage set, the goal is to start to see the improvement that can breed confidence before the U.S. team boards it flights for Brazil on Sunday.

"Ideally, you'd like to now see that we're sharpening up in all ways," midfielder Michael Bradley said. "That physically we look a little sharper, a little fresher, a little more lively, a little stronger. That now our soccer is getting better and sharper. When we get advantages in the final third that we're able to be more clinical and be more ruthless. And that now defensively we're organized, committed, compact and not giving much away.

"That's not so much specific to this game, as it is in general as we get closer to Ghana. You want to feel like a big game is coming up, a big tournament is coming, and in all ways we're firing on all cylinders."

ptenorio@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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