That label looked like a mistake after the Americans dropped a disappointing 2-1 decision to Ukraine on Friday, but Tab Ramos’ team looked like a much more polished and potent team in Monday’s convincing 2-0 win against Nigeria.
Several players who were shaky against Ukraine improved against Nigeria, while Ramos also did a better job, inserting Sebastian Soto into the starting lineup after leaving him out of the starting 11 against Ukraine and deploying Tim Weah as a central striker.
That move paid major dividends. Soto provided the presence in the penalty area the U.S. attack lacked against Ukraine, while Weah looked more comfortable operating on the left wing. Paxton Pomykal was able to combine with Alex Mendez in central midfield while Konrad De La Fuente worked the right wing well due to the Nigerian defense having to keep tabs on Soto.
The Americans dominated possession in their first match, but what was different against Nigeria was the patience and precision, as well as Nigeria’s willingness to attack. Ukraine sat back with numbers, making it difficult to break down their five-man defensive wall. The Americans held a 2-1 edge in possession, but their inability to break down Ukraine left them frustrated and ineffective.
On Monday, the Americans held a 60-40 edge in possession, and though they were out-shot by the Nigerians, they were able to generate more promising build-ups in the final third. Of course, part of that was down to an attack-minded Nigeria having to open up even more as it chased the game, but it was also a product of more incisive passing by the U.S. team’s creative players, as well as Soto’s hold-up play and intellgent runs from the striker position.
D. C. United midfielder Chris Durkin was another one of the U.S. team’s standouts, taking advantage of the increased amount of space left open by Nigeria’s attack-minded setup. Durkin was one of the players who under-performed against Ukraine, at least in part because of Ukraine’s defensive organization and penchant for bypassing him with long passes to their front men. Nigeria’s style played to Durkin’s strengths, as he won several balls in midfield as Nigeria kept trying to work through the middle, giving Durkin plenty of opportunities to show off his precise passing from deep in midfield.
It might have seemed risky for Ramos to sit Brandon Servania after his good showing against Ukraine, but Ramos banked on Alex Mendez and Paxton Pomykal working well together and they did, using their tanacity to contribute defensively to help deal with Nigeria’s playmakers, while also being sharp in attack.
No play better symbolized how much sharper the Americans were on Monday than the sequence leading to Soto’s second goal, which came just seconds into the second half. The United States took the opening kickoff and passed it around from the right wing, to the goalkeeper, then to the left wing, where it inevitable reached Chris Gloster, who capped an incisive run with an inch-perfect pass to Soto in the penalty area, and Soto made the most of his Hannover teammate’s setup, finishing expertly to make it 2-0 just 26 seconds into the second half.