The final: 2-1 for Team USA. The real outcome: It’s good this wasn’t a group game.
Sunday’s second friendly for the US, this one against Turkey, ended with a 2-1 victory for the US. They scored one brilliant goal, one lucky goal and surrendered a bad goal. This game could have ended tied or worse — not that it matters in these friendlies. Really, the final result isn’t what’s important here. But the following three things are important:
1. Turnovers and the exploitation of a back line.
Coming into this game, it was almost a given that Turkey would push more than Azerbaijan and get more chances offensively. But the USA handed them way too many chances in the first half, and that was the half that truly mattered. Nuri Sahin hit the left post when he was all alone with the ball in front of the US goal. Five minutes later Mevlut Erdinc was wide open. His shot, luckily, was weak. And those weren’t the only chances for Turkey, which found a lot of room down the right side where Timmy Chandler was defending at left back for the US. If Germany or Portugal were given those chances, they would’ve smelled blood and gone in for the kill. The US will have breakdowns (most teams do). But in their group, the Americans can’t afford that many and in such dangerous positions. Chandler was absolutely terrible. He didn’t show much as a substitute against Azerbaijan, and he was even worse against Turkey as a starter. His turnover led to the Crescent Stars’ penalty kick and, ultimately, the goal. He turned the ball over multiple times and gave away too much room. He rarely got forward (though he did assist on the second goal for the US). It wasn’t just Chandler, as the central defense starting tandem of Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler yielded way too much space and didn’t get to enough crosses.
2. Too much kick ball.
The US showed flashes of its offense. But too many times the US was eager to force passes rather than possess the ball and slow the game down. That led to turnovers and counterattacks and playing more defense than was necessary. The US had time and space, but they pushed the game too much. Is that a problem? In this case yes. Hold the ball up, pass it around, break down the defense. There are times to go forward instantly, like the absolutely beautiful give and go from Fabian Johnson to Michael Bradley and back to Johnson, for a left-footed one-timer and a 1-0 lead. Absolutely brilliant. But too often, defenders and midfielders looked to connect on 25-, 30-yard passes up field that were easily intercepted or broken up. If those passes are stolen in any of the World Cup group games, they are quickly transitioned to counterattacks and serious scoring threats the other way.
3. Not all bad.
OK, OK, those are some big negative points. So here’s the plus: the US counterattack did look good. Jermaine Jones was solid in that defensive central defender role at the bottom of the 4-4-2 diamond. Bradley continues to impress in a distribution role. The captain, Clint Dempsey, showed no ill effects of the nagging groin injury that forced him to miss the first friendly. He also finished off the US’ second goal, a gimme for sure, but one that found Dempsey in the right place at the right time — a main quality for any striker. Striker Jozy Altidore again had a strong game but couldn’t finish with a goal. He’s obviously struggling, but he’s finding other players open in hopes of getting a goal for someone on the team, some way. You have to believe that goal is coming for the player that hasn’t netted a goal for his club or the US since December.
Next up, Nigeria in Jacksonville, Fla., on Saturday, the final friendly of the three and the biggest test, with the Super Eagles the only World Cup qualifier the US will face before the tournament opens. (We’re not counting the closed-doors friendly vs. Belgium in Brazil.) The day after the Nigeria game, the US men’s national team boards a plane to Brazil.