Simple numbers occupied a large portion of the conversations surrounding the United States’ final World Cup warm-up match against Nigeria. They almost always came in sets of three or four: a 4-4-2, a 4-3-3, a 4-2-3-1. All could all have indicated how U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann would line up the U.S. Men’s National Team on the field against Nigeria, which could indicate how he would line up in the team’s World Cup opener against Ghana, and so on.
But, in one long answer to a press conference question the day before the USA’s 2-1 win over Nigeria in Jacksonville, Florida, Klinsmann insisted that sometimes, numbers are just numbers.
“The system is not the key anymore, like it was maybe 10, 15 years ago,” he said. “I think the trend is that we have to go away from the systems discussion. It doesn't lead you anywhere. Instead you have a whole team that knows how to support each other, and how to create stuff going forward. Years ago it was all down to the No. 10 to make things happen, now maybe a No. 6 makes things happen, or the fullbacks make things happen. It all changed over the last years. It always sounds pretty cool to talk about a 4-3-3, 4-4-2, or a 4-4-2 diamond, but actually, it's just useless.”
Klinsmann’s words apparently fell on deaf ears, because the system instantly became a topic as soon as the USA’s starting lineup was released on Saturday night. Kyle Beckerman, Jermaine Jones, and Michael Bradley – three central midfielders vying for time at what most assumed were two available spots - would all play at the same time. Few outside of the team knew exactly how the lineup would take shape.
As it turned out, their roles were intentionally vague: Beckerman in front of the back four, Jones on the left, Bradley up top, and Alejandro Bedoya on the right. After a rough start the quartet was able to control the tempo of the match with smart passes and timely defensive plays all helping to disrupt Nigeria’s rhythm.
“We know that’s Kyle’s specialty – to protect his teammates and to run endless miles for his team,” Klinsmann said after the game. “Jermaine, in that half position, has then more freedom to go forward so he can switch back and forth with Michael Bradley and knows that there’s someone behind him. I think that worked out really well.”
Bedoya served as the midfield’s mystery fourth element, and while he played a similar position on the wing that he always has with the National Team, his responsibilities began to look a little bit different with Jones playing narrow on the opposite side of the field.
“We talked beforehand about Kyle sitting in front of the defenders, Jermaine being tilted to his left, and Alejandro tilted to his right,” said Bradley. “I think the understanding among the three of them was very good. Defensively, we were able to close space down and make it hard on Nigeria in their attacking third."
The combination reaped rewards on the attacking end as well. Jozy Altidore’s first goal of the night came as a result of some crisp combination play in midfield, as Jones’ settling touch and Bedoya’s service from the right allowed Fabian Johnson to lay the ball across for an Altidore tap-in.
“For the first time it was OK,” Jones said of the lineup. “It was a good test, and with more work on it, we can score more goals.”