- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 1, 2014

HARRISON, N.J. — In the 26th minute of a game that meant nothing, everything the United States is capable of flashed before the eyes of an adoring crowd.

Streaking down the right flank, Fabian Johnson dished to playmaker Michael Bradley in the midfield and never slowed down, eventually running straight onto a ball Bradley had flipped sublimely over Turkey’s back line. In alone, Johnson collected it and took advantage, hammering a shot into the lower left corner of Turkey’s net.

A sellout crowd of 26,762 at Red Bull Arena exploded in cheers, drumbeats and song — not to mention dreams that something like this might happen again two weeks hence with the entire world watching.

In the end, though, the entertaining 2-1 win turned in by the U.S. on the second stop of its three-leg pre-Brazil tour of the country was merely another page to be turned, another set of tea leaves to be read.

Would Johnson and Bradley be able to combine on a similar give-and-go against the vastly higher level of competition they’ll face in Ghana, Portugal and Germany? Who knows. Will the U.S. be able to shore up a central defense that Sunday allowed Turkey to “control the first half,” as U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann put it, before it’s time to face the big boys? Impossible to say.

And therein lies the frustration of these warmup games in which every nation participates in the anxious weeks leading up to soccer’s biggest show. No concrete conclusions can be drawn, and the tinkering will continue right up to kickoff of the World Cup opener against Ghana two weeks from Monday.

“Today was another step forward,” was how U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard put it.

Howard, for his part, was impressive during his 45 minutes of play. The American defense had more than its share of issues in the first half, with Turkey continually finding openings among Timmy Chandler (newly inserted in the lineup Sunday) and Johnson on the outside and Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron in the middle. In those several heart-in-the-chest moments in the first half were yet another series of lessons for this young team.

“Obviously they didn’t score, but they used the flanks well and they were dangerous,” Howard said. “We have to be able to adapt on the fly, because not every game looks the same. You study an opponent and you think it’s going to happen one way and it doesn’t. Having that adaptability is important; we’re going to need that in the next couple weeks.”

With these games, it’s all about looking forward to what counts. Which is why Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey played the full 90 minutes up top, taking a beating at times from a physical Turkish side that, as Altidore pointed out, had “nothing to lose.”

That endurance test was, of course, planned out in advance. Dempsey had missed the previous tuneup game against Azerbaijan in San Francisco, but there are only so many opportunities for precious chemistry to develop up top, and Klinsmann wasn’t about to waste a minute. If it meant reserve forwards Chris Wondolowski and Aron Johansson were unable to pick up valuable game minutes of their own, well, that just shows how close the tournament is.

“[Dempsey and Altidore] need to really fine-tune, they need to read each other blindly, and that comes only over time,” Klinsmann said. “I feel bad for Wondo and Aron not getting on the field, but these two, they are dangerous, they are big-time players, and they are hopefully making a difference for us this summer.”

Dempsey found the scoresheet Sunday, putting home a cross by Chandler that was flubbed by Turkish defender Hakan Kadir Balta in the 6-yard box. That 52nd minute goal was part of a tighter second half for the U.S., not withstanding the penalty given away and converted by Turkey’s Selcuk Inan in the 90th minute.

So again, even on a day that clearly tended toward the positive, a teaching point for the Americans.

“You saw, still, we had those mental lapses where we give away cheap goals,” Altidore said. “We have to cut that out, because against bigger, better opponents, they’ll punish you.”

Only two weeks to go.

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