photo by Don Feria/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
NEW YORK — Sixteen days are all that separate the U.S. Men’s National Team from its 2014 World Cup opener against Ghana, and the Americans are in dire need of a stiff test to gauge where they currently stand.
They should get that on Sunday.
Turkey and its overlooked-but-talented squad will lock horns with the U.S. in front of an expected sold-out crowd at Red Bull Arena on Sunday afternoon in a game that should serve as a measuring stick for Jurgen Klinsmann and his side.
The U.S. were victorious in their first send-off series friendly this past Tuesday, but the 2-0 win over Azerbaijan was more a match that allowed the Americans to get their feet under them after two tough weeks of training camp than one that challenged them to play at their absolute best.
Turkey is likely to do a better job of being a challenge.
“With Turkey we have a team now on a very high level, a team that almost qualified (for the World Cup), and (has) very good individual players and they will challenge us,” Klinsmann said. “We wanted to start off a little bit easy foot — we talked about that before the Azerbaijan game — and now with Turkey we really have a benchmark that gives us more insight into certain things.”
The match will also provide the Americans an opportunity to continue to fine-tune things ahead of their Group G opener against Ghana on June 16. That means it is likely Klinsmann will again deploy the same back line that posted a clean sheet against Azerbaijan, as doing so will allow the defenders to further establish chemistry.
Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler and the rest of the U.S. back four may have been relatively untested this past Tuesday, but that should change against a Turkey team that looked dangerous and beat Honduras, 2-0, at RFK Stadium this past Thursday.
“We need games that really keep us on our toes,” Klinsmann said. “We need games, especially for our back line, that challenges them not to lose focus and concentration for even one moment, because otherwise you get punished and that costs you badly, especially when you go into Brazil. You have to minimize all the mistakes you can minimize. We won’t delete them. The mistakes will happen also in Brazil, but it’s just reducing them as much as possible.”
It also appears that Klinsmann will trot out the diamond midfield formation that he has used in the last two U.S. friendlies. The two changes from the Azerbaijan game that looked to be in the cards following Saturday’s open training session at Red Bull Arena is Brad Davis replacing Alejandro Bedoya on the left side and the now-healthy Clint Dempsey resuming his role up top next to Jozy Altidore after being made a late scratch Tuesday due to groin tightness.
Still, the focus is on getting the players more comfortable in a system that Klinsmann is clearly considering using at the World Cup against talented foes in Ghana, Portugal and Germany.
“That system right now, it suits a lot of our players because it is also based on their strengths,” said Klinsmann. “If you look at Michael Bradley coming out of the position of the No. 10 role, Clint up top with Jozy. Every system kind of requires different characteristics. The diamond version requires fullbacks that go down the line, if it’s a Fabian Johnson or a DaMarcus Beasley.
“You need to have players who are up for it otherwise, again, you switch the ideas. It’s good for us that we work on different (systems) and hopefully we can use them in different moments in Brazil.”
A key component of the diamond setup is Bradley playing a more advanced position than a withdrawn one. The veteran was extremely impressive playing in the attacking midfield role in the 2-2 draw vs. Mexico in April, when he scored a goal and had an assist — but he struggled a bit more against an organized Azerbaijan squad that packed numbers behind the ball.
Mixed results aside, the point of having Bradley further up the field is to allow him to dictate more of the attack while also preventing defenses from zeroing in on Dempsey and Altidore.
“Hopefully, it’s a very effective triangle there,” said Klinsmann. “Michael is a two-way player. He works defensively the same way, and he helps out. The key for us is to learn how to be connected everywhere. Defensively, when we lose the ball, get everybody behind the ball and everybody help out, and the strikers (serve) as the first line of defense for us.
“But he certainly has good qualities to kind of get into the box and finish things off. It makes it more difficult for the opponent not only to look for Clint and Jozy, (but) there’s another one coming in and maybe even a winger as well. … Michael is just improving every year and it’s a joy to watch that. This is now a huge opportunity for him as well.”
Added Altidore, who is looking to break his scoring drought against Turkey: “I think we’re starting to see more, kind of, of the full Michael Bradley. I think we saw the defensive side. I think he’s very good at winning tackles and distributing the ball. I think going forward, he’s also very good and I think people are starting to see that. It’s nice that we can kind of play a way to accommodate him and I think any time you play with more attackers it’s comfortable for any player.”
Dempsey is another player with a big opportunity to show how well he is clicking with his teammates after missing Tuesday’s win. Klinsmann said Thursday that Dempsey would start vs. Turkey, and the U.S. captain confirmed that news during the U.S.’s pre-game press conference.
“I didn’t have an injury,” said Dempsey. “It was just some tightness in my groin and I felt that it didn’t make much sense to push it in that game, but I was able to participate in full training (on Friday and Saturday) and I felt good and I look forward to the game on Sunday.”
In order for the U.S. to ease some of the concerns that fans and sections of the media have, a more convincing performance will have to be put forth against Turkey than was delivered vs. Azerbaijan. Doing that will not be easy, of course, but it will be necessary in order to show that the Americans are ready for the tough group games that they will play in Brazil.
“I think it’s a bit of an unknown Turkey, but I’ve played there and they have very good technical players,” Altidore said. “They combine well, they like to go through the middle, they’re also good on the counter, they have some quickness. I don’t think it’s going to be an easy game at all.”
At this point in the process of the road to Brazil, that’s more than a good thing.