U.S. performance is a tale of two teams
PHILADELPHIA -- Inconsistency continues to plague the U.S. national team.
In the first half of the Americans' 2-1 friendly win over Turkey on Saturday, the U.S. was lucky not to concede more than one goal. The team played a high back line in an attempt to trap Turkey in its own half. But this strategy catered to the strength of the Turks, who kept the spaces so small that the U.S. couldn't conceivably operate in them, leading to rampant loss of possession, inevitably followed by the Turks scampering off on the counterattack.
In those, the U.S. exposed itself as being slow in the back, and usually unsuccessful in bringing dribbles to a halt. That's what happened when the Turks scored the first goal of the game. Right back Jonathan Spector made a run forward, which left the defense vulnerable. Fellow defender Jay DeMerit didn't get back in time to cover for him, allowing Arda Turan to score.
Frustrated by its lack of space, the U.S. had to work hard to complete passes and as a consequence looked nervous on the ball, even though it had plenty of possession. Making matters worse, the team's creative players didn't get enough touches on the ball. Winger Landon Donovan wasn't properly integrated into the run of play, forward Clint Dempsey seemed to be wearing steel-toed shoes and midfielder Benny Feilhaber appeared out of his depth and out of place on the left, struggling defensively and fighting the urge to drift in.
"We were all over the place," conceded U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard.
But if the first half was vintage 2006, when the U.S. was bounced from the World Cup in just three games, the second was vintage 2009, when the U.S. strung together classic upsets to reach the final of the Confederations Cup.
After the break, with the insertion of midfielder José Torres, striker Robbie Findley, central defender Oguchi Onyewu and right back Steve Cherundolo, the U.S. turned things around in spectacular fashion. Passes no longer fell short of their targets, spaces were found out wide, Donovan started getting more touches and Dempsey began doing more with his.
Freed from his forward role, Dempsey was allowed to drop deep and collect the ball. Donovan, meanwhile, could take on his opponents one-on-one, which is what enabled him to beat the goalkeeper and play the ball to wide-open Jozy Altidore for the equalizer and later hit Dempsey on the run for the winner. With Torres taking the place of Ricardo Clark in central midfield, Michael Bradley had room to occasionally go forward and help the U.S. impose its will on Turkey.
"In the second half we played like we were supposed to, compact and as a unit," said Onyewu.
In spite of the Jekyll and Hyde performance, coach Bob Bradley wasn't unhappy. "In terms of what you want out of a send-off game, I think today was very good," he said. "There are a lot of things on the field to build on -- a real good push when we got behind -- and at the end a good hard-fought win against a good team. So in that regard we accomplished a lot today."
One of those building blocks has to be Torres, who looked like the ideal candidate to line up next to Bradley full-time. Torres pulled the strings from deep in the second half and brought the best out of Bradley, freeing his neighbor in midfield up to do to more than just bail out the defense. In the process, Torres felt more comfortable on the U.S. team than ever before.
"As the days and the games go by I've started to get a lot more confidence," Torres said. "I was trying to play simply. In the first game [against the Czech Republic on Wednesday] I was a little bit stiff and I was trying to turn around too quick and releasing the ball too fast. In this game I took my time and tried to put the passes on target, and I think I did a very good job at that."
Also helping his own cause was Findley, who was a revelation up front after coming on as a substitute. He stretched the defense and gave the U.S. the speed and inventiveness up top that the U.S. hasn't seen since striker Charlie Davies was injured in October. As Findley said after the match, his role is to "provide a spark ... to come out with a lot of energy, high intensity and just cause problems for the defense."
He did just that.
On the back line, Cherundolo showed himself an excellent alternative to Spector, if not a preferable option.
Spector wasn't the only player who struggled on the field. Benny Feilhaber produced little on the left and was a defensive liability, and ever-hapless left back Jonathan Bornstein got skinned by Sercan Yildirim in his only significant action.
Perhaps the biggest positive to come from this game, aside from the psychological boost this come-from-behind win will give the team, is the 45 quality minutes turned in by recently rehabbed central defender Onyewu, who had looked shaky against the Czechs earlier this week.
"The knee felt fine," said Onyewu. "No problems, no setbacks. I'm feeling really good. The first game I felt OK, and this game I felt better than the first. I'm just anticipating feeling better every time I go out there."
That'll be good news for the U.S. squad as it heads to South Africa. Yes, Bradley has lots of issues to address, but for the first time in months there were more signs of encouragement than troubling question marks.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.