USA gets win over Turkey, but defensive struggles persist

Fabian Johnson scored his first international goal for the United States in the win.

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HARRISON, NJ – Two games. Two wins. Two outings in which the United States men’s national team got hard-fought results from ponderous performances.

That’s the tally after the USA vanquished Turkey 2-1 in the second of the United States men’s national team’s three warm-up games before they head to the World Cup in Brazil on June 8. Their victory came on a gloriously sunny afternoon at Red Bull Arena on Sunday, having already dispatched Azerbaijan 2-0 in San Francisco on Tuesday.

Fabian Johnson and Clint Dempsey got the goals for the USA. But the game itself was tighter than the score suggested. It may have even flattered the Americans a tad, as Turkey probably had the better of the chances throughout the game. But whereas their visitors squandered a slew of appetizing shots, the USA scored a splendid goal and got another one on account of moxie and hard work.

The Americans began the game with the zeal and confidence head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has been trying to instill in the squad in all his time in charge. This refreshing aggressiveness produced some promising positions in the first 10 minutes, if not a real scoring chance.

FRAME BY FRAME

But while the intentions going forward were good, the defense about which so much has been written, showed again that it was assembled very recently and needs more time to gel. By the 12th minute, the USA had given up lush shots to Oguzhan Ozyakup, which roared right into goalkeeper Tim Howard’s hands, and Nuri Sahin, which dinked softly off the post. Both were the upshot of poor organization in the back. This was an issue throughout the game. As was the Americans’ spacing in midfield.

"Defensively, especially in the first half, we needed to make some corrections at half-time," Klinsman said following the game. "We need to close the gaps a bit better so we still have a lot of work ahead of us to become more compact, more connected between the players."

The USA had a goal disallowed in the 15th minute when an apparent shove on goalkeeper Onur Kivrak invalidated Jozy Altidore’s poke of the loose ball into the net. “That’s a good goal!” Klinsmann barked at the fourth official. But the call stood.

Turkey got three more soft chances before the Americans went ahead in the 26th. Michael Bradley, who had seen his shot blocked five minutes earlier to end a fine attack, received the ball from right back Fabian Johnson, who strode purposefully upfield. Johnson kept running into the penalty area and Bradley deftly chipped it back into his path. With a single, sublime touch, Johnson kissed the ball off the far post and in.

CAPTAIN AMERICA

The Yanks labored through the rest of a chippy half, but with little to show for it as Turkey eagerly chopped down Altidore and his fellow forward Clint Dempsey whenever they got on the ball.

Half-time substitute goalkeeper Brad Guzan was tested almost immediately when Ahmet Ozek ripped a shot at his near post. But Guzan snatched it well, demonstrating that he is a backup who can be counted on to step in at a moment’s notice.

Not quite a minute later, the 52nd of the game, the Americans got their second tally, putting the final score on the board. Left back Timmy Chandler overlapped and whipped in a low cross that Turkey defender Hakan Balta scuffed in his own goal mouth. The ball spun past his goalkeeper and into the feet of the alert Dempsey, who slipped it in.

A short while later, Brad Davis set up Graham Zusi after scampering up the left flank and keeping the bouncing ball from going out of hands with a swift touch of his hand – Thierry Henry-style. But Zusi whacked it into the side netting. And that just about concluded the highlights of the American offense for the afternoon.

COMBINATION PLATTER

The game slowed up in its last half hour, with large pockets of space opening up. But neither team had the wherewithal to capitalize. Altidore made a series of encouraging runs into the vacant stretches of grass but was called for several dubious fouls or set up teammates who demurred on putting the ball in the goal.

At length, Turkey got a goal in the 89th minute when the American defense was caught out again, Chandler in this case, and Geoff Cameron kept out the finish with his hand. Selcuk Inan converted the penalty. A late Turkish spell of pressure yielded no winner for them.

It was, in all, a step forward from the performance against Azerbaijan, against whom little else but the victory had been gained. There are plenty of kinks to iron out the defense yet. And the connection between the midfield and the forwards is still tenuous. Altidore and Dempsey, meanwhile, could stand to gain some sharpness.

"We’re moving ourselves along," said Bradley. "These are tricky games. It’s important to take them seriously. But we wouldn’t be human if there wasn’t an eye towards the World Cup. We did a good job of getting what we can out of it. If you compare it to Azerbaijan a few days ago, thought physically we looked sharper, we looked fitter, there was more energy."

If the point of this series was to slowly build towards a climax in form in Brazil, Team USA may be on the right path. While far from perfect, Sunday’s was another win over a better opponent than the last. “It was a good game,” said Klinsmann. “It gives us another step in our progress.”

There are signs of growth, even if they are crowded by concerns. After this game, there remained 15 days until the World Cup opener against Ghana in Natal on June 16. The Americans are winning games. But much work remains.