Fabian Johnson celebrated nonchalantly, running at a brisk pace toward the corner flag with his arms in airplane mode, before turning toward his onrushing teammates and standing more or less in place.
Yes, this was just a friendly. But Johnson had just scored his first international goal, and it was a beauty.
“In his celebration, you could see that he’s not an experienced goal scorer,” U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann joked about the right back, who seems to have solidified his place as a starter after a 2-1 U.S. win against Turkey on Sunday at Red Bull Arena. It was the USA’s second of three Send-Off Games before departing for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
Though his celebration might not have been high-quality for a goal scorer, the finish certainly was. The sequence began with Johnson taking possession just inside Turkey’s half, before cutting into space inside. Standing in his path was not just a group of Turkey defenders, but also Michael Bradley, who side-stepped out of the way as Turkey’s Nuri Sahin advanced on Johnson. In doing this, Bradley provided Johnson with an easy passing option, and received the ball. Then he provided Johnson with a very difficult pass.
“He gave it to me in a way where I had that split second extra to kind of take a touch and figure everything out,” Bradley said. “He kept running through, and I could see that their defense had stepped up. He led me exactly to where he wanted the ball.”
Bradley’s exquisite chip over the Turkey defense found Johnson all alone in the penalty area, where he pounced on the half volley to bury the ball in the lower corner of the far post for the USA’s opening goal in the 26th minute.
“I wouldn’t expect anything different,” said Bradley. “He’s shown since the first day that we’ve had him around, that he’s just a good soccer player. There’s not much else to say. You can play him at right back, you can play him at left back, right midfield, left midfield – he’s just a good soccer player.
“Since the first time that he’s come into the National Team, he and I have a good understanding.”
With every training session and every game we have at our disposal, the fine-tuning element is coming along
Klinsmann hopes that the understanding shown by Bradley and Johnson on the play will spread, in some way, to other parts of the team. Though the U.S. did look somewhat more cohesive than it did in a 2-0 win against Azerbaijan the previous week, the coach readily admitted that there is a fair amount of adjusting still to be done.
“With every training session and every game we have at our disposal, the fine-tuning element is coming along,” Klinsmann said. “It’s getting better. It’s not where we want it yet, there’s no question about it, but we’re working on it.”
The team’s defense in particular had a few shaky moments, especially in the first half as Turkey’s wingers were able to find space and attack the USA’s back four by cutting in from the flanks. Selcuk Inan was at the heart of many dangerous plays, and nearly scored the opener himself in the 20th minute as he cut in between Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron, who started their second consecutive match together in central defense. Jermaine Jones, starting as a holding midfielder, often had to deal with more than he bargained for out wide as space was left open after runs by Johnson or left back Timmy Chandler.
“The key is that when Fabian goes up, or Beas (DaMarcus Beasley) or Timmy Chandler goes up left, we need to have the right balance,” said Besler. “That’s recognizing when our fullbacks are forward, pulling a guy back, or making sure me and the other center back and Jermaine are allocated well."
Turkey’s offensive flair led Klinsmann to make a change at halftime, both in personnel and tactics. Because of an agreed-upon plan to give Jones 45 minutes in defensive midfield, Klinsmann replaced him with Kyle Beckerman at the break and instructed Bradley to drop deeper in midfield to help cover the space in front of the back four.
“In the last game, [Turkey] had a lot of guys in the center of the park. They weren’t really playing out to their wings," midfielder Brad Davis said. “Today, they changed it up a little bit and in the second half we had to make an adjustment, as well.”
Those changes didn’t prevent Bradley from pushing forward, though – in fact, the U.S. MNT’s second goal of the night started with a forward run by him to the top of the Turkey penalty area. In the 52nd minute, Bradley shifted the ball left for Davis, who in turn found Chandler on the left wing. Turkey defender Hakan Kadir Balta made a mess of the cross, scuffing his clearance toward his own goal and right in the path of Clint Dempsey, who applied an easy finish over the line.
The final stages of the match found the United States largely on the defensive, with halftime substitute John Brooks being called into action multiple times as a replacement for Besler. The 6-foot-4 defender came through with timely blocks, aggressive clearances, and solid aerial play to hold Turkey at bay through most of the second half.
Turkey was able to get on the score sheet with a penalty kick, after Chandler was dispossessed by Mustafa Pektemek, whose eventual effort on goal was knocked off the line by the hand of Geoff Cameron.
Besides the late defensive lapse, the game also fell a little short in that there was no goal for Jozy Altidore, who played the full 90 up top with Dempsey and endured some physical play from the Turkey defense.
“Everybody’s so worried about my confidence. My confidence is fine,” Altidore said. “It’s not going to change at all. Whether I score a hat trick or I don’t score at all, I’m fine.
“It doesn’t matter how I play as long as we win.”
The U.S. Men’s National Team rode a shock opening win against fourth-ranked Portugal, a draw against the host Korea Republic and a little help from the goalposts to advance to the Round of 16 at the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
Finishing second in the group meant that the MNT would have less than three full days rest to turn around and face regional rivals Mexico in the highest stakes match the two nations had ever played. With little time to prepare, in some respects the U.S. was lucky to have drawn the team with which it was most familiar.
Despite the U.S. having won four of the previous five meetings, according to U.S. captain Claudio Reyna, when the team arrived at Jeonju World Cup Stadium that June afternoon, there wasn’t much respect shown from the opposition side.
“Before the game we walked out and we were walking around the field. We had this focus and concentration as a team as you do preparing for any game,” the former team captain told ussoccer.com. “I was with Eddie Lewis, Frankie Hejduk, Gregg Berhalter and Earnie Stewart and we were ready to go – we were foaming at the mouth for this game. We looked over and the Mexicans were laughing, joking and looking at us…That was it.”
Reyna called the team over to quickly finish their pre-game pitch inspection and head back into the locker room.
“We sort of wanted the game to start, we were so ready to go,” he continued. “Back in the locker room, I remember saying, ‘These guys are laughing at us. They think they’re going to beat us easily.’”
Mexico had done efficient work to get to that point. Having finished with seven points atop a group that featured Italy, Croatia and Ecuador, El Tri’s run to the Round of 16 had the side brimming with self-assurance ahead of the match.
“They were feeling confident, but the lack of respect they showed was clear – you never do that,” said Reyna. “I would never do that in my career, even if I felt really comfortable about beating an opponent. That you’d be giggling, laughing and joking at the opponent. It was pretty clear that it was directed at us and at some of our players, and obviously we play them all the time so there’s that rivalry.”
“I remember saying, ‘We’re not losing this game guys.’ Everyone went around and you could feel it all the way through that we couldn’t wait to get out there.”
Reyna gets past Ramon Morales in the most famous "Dos a Cero" in Men's National Team history.
Injuries and suspensions limited the U.S. options, and Bruce Arena used the uncertainty to confound the Mexicans by deploying a 3-5-2 formation for the match. The switch saw Reyna move from his regular central midfield position to the right flank, with the move paying off almost immediately. Following an eighth minute foul in the Mexico half, Brian McBride quickly restarted as he saw Reyna pushing up the flank. The U.S. captain beat two defenders to the end line before centering for Josh Wolff, whose deft touch teed up McBride for a clinical finish and an equally gratifying goal celebration.
The goal set an early tone and played perfectly into Arena’s game plan, allowing the U.S. to sit in and pick its moments to counter against an increasingly frustrated Mexican side. Landon Donovan’s second- half header off an Eddie Lewis cross helped ice the game, giving the MNT its first ever World Cup knockout round win and a quarterfinal date with Germany.
“It was just a great team performance. To beat them 2-0, eliminate them and afterwards realize this was a big deal back in the States,” Reyna said.
The win raised the profile of the Men’s National Team more than any other since the 1994 FIFA World Cup, but in an age before social media, Reyna admitted the players didn’t realize how big an impact the victory had made.
“We didn’t know how huge it was at home,” he said. “We were in Korea and we knew it was sort of growing in momentum. I remember seeing some of the news clips from Mexico City where there were people in plazas and squares crying over the result – that felt good.”
U.S. supporters celebrate during the MNT's 2-0 win against Mexico at the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
Though the momentum was already building towards U.S. domination of the rivalry, the World Cup win tipped the scales. Since 2000, the MNT has held a 13-6-5 advantage against El Tri.
“From that moment on, it continued to be a real domination of Mexico,” Reyna said. “We went on and beat them all the time. That was the point where we felt we were no longer playing behind them, that we were better than them.”
“It was one big coming out party on the biggest stage.”Read more