HARRISON, N.J. - After being drawn into the World Cup's "Group of Death" last December, the United States men's national soccer team scoured the globe for opponents that would provide tough tests before heading to Brazil. They got what they asked for in a skilled Turkey team that might have been the best nation not to qualify for the World Cup.
Though the American defense showed its inexperience at times, the offense delivered plenty of entertainment. In the end, the sellout crowd of 26,762 left Red Bull Arena happy, as goals from Fabian Johnson and Clint Dempsey gave the home team a 2-1 win.
"Overall, it was an entertaining game to watch," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said.
Johnson opened the scoring in the 26th minute. He and Michael Bradley played a give-and-go that would have made Jack Ramsay proud. Johnson played a short pass to Bradley and sprinted right up the middle of the field. Bradley lofted a perfect ball over Turkey's back line, and Johnson hit a first-time volley past Turkish goalkeeper Onur Recep Kıvrak.
As impressive as Johnson's run and finish were, Bradley's assist showed why he is the United States' indispensable player. The Princeton native has the national team's best soccer mind, with unrivalled vision and passing ability. From start to finish in his New Jersey homecoming, Bradley was right in the middle of the action.
Turkey had multiple free kicks from close range early in the second half, but didn't make much of any of them. At the other end, the U.S. buried the first big chance it got - and once again, Bradley was key.
In the 52nd minute, Bradley drove the ball up the middle of the field and laid it off to Brad Davis, whose short pass down the left flank sprung an overlapping Timothy Chandler. The German-American defender hit a low cross that was mis-played by Turkish defender Hakan Kadir Balta, giving U.S. captain Clint Dempsey an easy finish from close range.
Dempsey's forward partner, Jozy Altidore, had no such luck. Altidore hasn't scored since December for club (Sunderland of the English Premier League) or country, a drought that has frustrated his team as much as his fans. He also heads to Brazil knowing that no U.S. striker has scored a goal at a World Cup since 2002.
Altidore had loads of chances to score Sunday, couldn't find the back of the net. Some of that was to Kivrak's credit - and some to the referees' blame - but the end result was another scoreless outing.
Though Altidore showed his frustration at times Sunday, he still put in an all-out effort. The fans showered him with cheers, no doubt remembering Altidore's early years with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars.
"I have a lot of great memories with these people," Altidore said. "It would have been nice [to score], but at the end of the day we won, and the team looked nice, so that's what's most important."
Turkish coach Fatih Terim offered strong praise for Altidore's relentless pestering of the visitors' defense.
"He's a very powerful striker, the kind of striker that centerbacks don't like much," Terim said.
At the other end of the field, Chandler drew praise and scrutiny for his work at left back - a position that has long been the Americans' weak spot.
Chandler's path to prominence has been one of the U.S. team's most intriguing. Born to a New York native who served in the military in Frankfurt and married a German woman. Chandler could have played for the U.S. or Germany. The same goes for teammates John Brooks, Julian Green, Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones.
Klinsmann secured their commitments with a recruiting effort that would have made a college football coach proud.
It's not a coincidence that the U.S. has so many players with ties to Germany. Klinsmann was one of Germany's best ever players, and coached the national team to the semifinals of the 2006 World Cup. That gave him a strong scouting network to find dual-nationality players.
In 2011, Chandler made his American debut. Since it came in an exhibition game, though, he still could switch allegiances. Two years later, he cast his lot with the United States for good when he played in a World Cup qualifier against Honduras. But he was not called up again until he was named to the World Cup roster.
All along the way, there have been questions about Chandler's true level of commitment to the U.S. team. His easy return to Klinsmann's squad - and his assist on Dempsey's goal - provided some answers.
That said, Chandler's defensive skills still need some refining. In the 89th minute, he was dispossessed of the ball by Turkish forward Mustafa Peketemek, leaving goalkeeper Brad Guzan stranded. Guzan - who played the second half after Tim Howard started - tried to close down Peketemek's angles, and Geoff Cameron arrived to help.
When Peketemek eventually shot, the ball hit Cameron's arm. Tunisian referee Slim Jedidi saw the infraction, blew his whistle and awarded Turkey a penalty kick.
Selçuk İnan stepped up, placed a calm shot to Brad Guzan's right and ended the Americans' chances of a shutout.
Klinsmann lamented his team's need to be "more compact and more connected" defensively. Cameron and fellow starter Matt Besler were particularly troubled by Turkey's speed and width. Fortunately for the U.S., Turkey failed to finish some easy chances. Ghana, Portugal and Germany likely won't be so charitable.
To be sure, a win is a win, and Klinsmann will find his fair share of positives to take from the performance. But the late defensive lapse showed that the U.S. still has work to do if it wants to upset the odds and get out of the group stage in Brazil.