[MY VIEW] Turkey isn't going to the World Cup, but it gave a USA a good test in the Americans' 2-1 win and a few thoughts to ponder as preparations move along
for the 2010 competition.
True professionals show up on game day, and in the final game of three-match tour, Turkey showed why players like Hamit Altintop, Emre Bezozoglu and Tuncay Sanli have played in some of the world’s biggest leagues.
The Turkish players run and move with purpose and intent, they tackle like they mean it, they see and create space, and take pride in every touch. They may not all play for big clubs, but they all play in a lot of big games.
To lose the ball is to lose face, to miss a tackle is a disgrace. This happens to players all the time, of course, but while physical errors can be forgiven, mental lapses are not. How good can Turkey be in a competitive environment? It finished third in the 2002 World Cup: it lost only to Brazil twice, in the group stage and again in the semifinals.
Turkey failed to qualify for the 2006 and 2010 tournaments despite that accomplishment in 2002 and a respectable cast of players, and so once again U.S. players and fans can be thankful of Concacaf, a region where the heavies usually reign and challengers fall by the wayside.
Upon taking the U.S. head coaching job back in the fall of 2006, Bob Bradley stressed the importance of winning the Gold Cup, for it qualifies the winner for the Confederations Cup and gives the USA a rare chance to test itself in a major competition outside of its region. By beating Egypt and Spain and pushing Brazil before losing, 3-2, last summer in South Africa, the Americans gained 100 times more confidence and experience than could possibly be achieved by beating Mexico, again.
Friendlies are always tricky to evaluate and assess.
Last November, the Americans lost to Slovakia, 1-0, and were pasted by Denmark, 3-1. Both of those nations are headed to South Africa. The USA didn’t field its strongest team in those games, but the same can be said of last week’s game against the Czech Republic, a 4-2 defeat at home.
Many of the U.S. players who faltered in those games aren’t going to South Africa;
that’s a weeding-out process that frustrates fans who don’t see the total picture, but it must be done. There really isn’t any other way.
The relative weakness of MLS is another factor to consider. Only four MLS players made the 23-man roster, and while many more members of the squad started out in MLS, that imbalance is disquieting.
Only Landon Donovan, the best U.S. player, is a guaranteed starter amongst the MLS contingent. Jonathan Bornstein, a hero in October when his headed stoppage-time equalizer at RFK Stadium tied Costa Rica, 2-2, and pushed the USA to the Hexagonal top spot, is struggling to make his case for playing time.
Herculez Gomez looks twice the player he was in MLS, and how many midfields would be better with Jose Francisco Torres, not to mention ex-MetroStar Michael Bradley?
Robbie Findley didn’t play a great game against the Netherlands in March, but he did perform precisely as Bradley instructed him: try to get behind the defense, get wide, use speed to cause problems and force mistakes.
He didn't play against the Czech Republic, yet in training showed enough to confirm his place. When he came into the Turkey game for the second half, the defenders had to drop deeper to respect that pace, which opened up the midfield for Donovan and Bradley and Torres and Clint Dempsey to exploit.
He still lost the ball a couple of times on the dribble, yet he also lifted a wonderful chip that triggered the equalizing goal. That’s an example of the breadth of play the international game demands, and isn’t seen nearly often enough by American players in MLS.
Opportunities for players overseas will always be limited, yet as MLS expands, more and more players can get through their growing pains as pros at home.
The conditioning, physical and mental, players undergo in foreign leagues is much more intense, and for the foreseeable future, the players who head overseas and the games played against solid European and South American club and international competition will be the only reliable barometer of where our players stand.