JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A crowd of more than 50,000 fans leapt to its feet to serenade Jozy Altidore with noisy applause as he exited the game. He responded with his arms overhead, clapping back at them. He had just scored a goal that his coach would call "world class," and although he shushed any idea that he needed some confidence, that's exactly what he had spread around the packed stadium.
On Sunday, when the team lands in Brazil, the United States' 2-1 win over Nigeria here will mean nothing. This group's legacy will be written in games against Ghana, Portugal and Germany. But for a day, for a moment, this is a sweet glimpse of what U.S. soccer can be: efficient, aesthetic, compelling. The stars were stars, the passing was pure, and the defense was … Klinsmannian.
Asked how close this game was to the team's best soccer, defender Matt Besler said, "I hope it's very close." And from a confidence perspective, Besler said, "We're right there."
This is the first time the men's national team has entered a World Cup with three straight wins, and players said afterward that all three games showed incremental progress in key areas. The swinging doors shown on defense in last week's friendly against Turkey were mostly shut on Saturday, as Klinsmann used that key soccer word "compact" to describe the closeness of the defense on the field. Goalie Tim Howard, feted before the game for his 100th cap on Saturday, was only beaten once, and that was on a penalty kick. He was rarely tested by a Nigerian team that can play with the kind of speed and physicality that Ghana will likely bring on June 16.
The tightness of the defense will satisfy the hardcore soccer fan, but the story of the game was the man of the match: Altidore, who hadn't scored a goal in any competition since Dec. 4. The striker awoke forcefully from his scoring slumber with a tip-in in the first half and a slam dunk in the second. He converted on a glorious set-up from Alejandro Bedoya via Jermaine Jones, finishing into a wide-open net in the 31st minute, to make it 1-0 and send the home crowd into a frenzy. Then, in the 68th minute, he twisted Nigerian defender Joseph Yobo inside-out on the left side of the goal and then whipped a shot into the near side of the net, leaving goalie Vincent Enyeama flat on his back. It was a highlight-reel strike and showed what Altidore is capable of when he's in form. After the game, the press rushed to pursue the storyline of Altidore getting his confidence back, but he would have none of that. He refused to go anywhere near admitting that he needed to break through on the scoreboard.
"I've had this pressure since I was 16 years old," he said.
The rest of the team echoed that sentiment, especially Michael Bradley, who sighed in frustration when asked about Altidore's confidence. "Anybody who ever questions Jozy," he said, "or anybody who doesn't see what he brings to our team doesn't understand soccer. I'll tell you that right now."
That could be one of the more uplifting takeaways from Saturday: that the team wasn't really uplifted at all by Altidore's performance. The focus, for Altidore and the rest of the players, was in locking down the defense. The offense emerged from that.
"My responsibility," Altidore said, "is to help the team in other ways."
A close friend of Altidore, who didn't want to be named, said Altidore has "never" shown the least bit of concern during his drought.
"Whether he is on a hot streak or a cold spell," the friend said, "his confidence has never been any different. Always high."
Confidence in U.S. soccer has not been "always high" from an outside perspective, and the looming Group of Death doesn't help with that. But the momentum is clearly there now. Just about every aspect of the team's play has ramped up over the past three games. All of that could fall apart quickly in Brazil, but these on-field trials have been used wisely. The team, given little time to come together on and off the field, has done just that. It wasn't just Altidore's goal that was "world class," to use Klinsmann's term. It was some of the setups as well. Bradley controlled the middle of the field notably well, and there was more space for Clint Dempsey and Altidore than might have been expected against a team like Nigeria. The U.S. won the game Saturday, not just the score.
"We haven't played the same lineup, and we've had different formations, but overall, we find a way to get results," said midfielder Brad Davis, "and we got the results we wanted. We definitely had better cohesion and we moved the ball better overall."
In the locker room after the game, Bradley and his teammates gathered and agreed: "The fun starts now."
True enough. But it sure felt during the match on Saturday like the fun was already happening.