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.”
On Feb. 9, 2013, the U.S. Women’s National Team kicked off the new year with a 4-1 victory against Scotland in Jacksonville, Florida. Christen Press, then 24-years-old, was responsible for two goals that day, scoring in the 13th minute and adding another in the 32nd to give the U.S. a 2-0 lead at halftime.
The early goal was Press’ first for the USA, coming in a match that was also her first cap.
Becky Sauerbrunn hugs Christen Press in the aftermath of Press scoring on her WNT debut.
Earning that first cap is special for any player, but a debut and a goal in the same game? That’s a rare feat. In the 30+ year history of the U.S. WNT 21 players have scored in their first caps.
NOTHING TO LOSE
Press’ path to that first game three years ago was an interesting one. In early 2012, she made the decision to move to Sweden after U.S.-based Women’s Professional Soccer folded. Press thought leaving the country might negatively impact her hopeful National Team career, but little did she know, it was only just beginning.
“I think just because I always thought that the National Teams would be watching the American league, I thought that going abroad was kind of like saying goodbye to my dream of playing for the National Team,” recalled Press. “I left around this time, in February, and I thought I would not get a call, I sort of thought that I would fall out of U.S. Soccer’s radar.”
As it turns out, head coach Pia Sundhage kept tabs on players in Europe, especially in her native land of Sweden. Press got off to a hot start with her new club, and it wasn’t long before she was on her way back home.
Press returned to the U.S. and joined the WNT in Florida in April during the final stretch of what had been an intense fitness camp. She kept to herself and tried to quickly learn as much as possible despite only being there for five days.
“I had nothing to lose,” she said. “It was my first camp, it was warm and I was so happy. I don’t think I spoke to anybody. I was not nervous, I was just happy to be in Florida and my dream was coming true. I’m always quiet when I don’t know my surroundings, so I just kept to myself trying to learn the rules, how to behave; it was all so quick.”
That short stint turned out to be the only one for Press before she was named an Olympic alternate in 2012. The following February, Tom Sermanni took over as WNT head coach, and it was then Press learned she would start against Scotland. Her chance had arrived.
“I went on the field, the crowd was so much bigger than I’d ever played in front of, and for me it was so much bigger than life,” said Press. “But I kept telling myself, ‘I’m not nervous, I’m confident, I’m a good player and I believe in myself.’”
Years and multiple goals later, plus one Women’s World Cup title to her name, the dream is alive and well for Press.
Press celebrates scoring her first World Cup goal against Australia in the USA's opening match of the 2015 Women's World Cup