Analysis: U.S. a step behind
Maybe the recent friendlies played against New Zealand and Wales somehow made the U.S. National Team players forget just how fast and physical the game is played at the international level.
If anything comes out of Thursday's 2-1 loss to Turkey in the FIFA Confederation's Cup, it is such a reminder, as the World Cup semifinalists from a year ago seemed to be a step quicker than the Americans throughout the afternoon in Saint Etienne.
From the outset, the Turkish attackers were more involved in the game than those of the U.S., and were able to keep the defense back on its heels. That seemingly worked against Bruce Arena's plan, whose game plan included trying to spring DaMarcus Beasley and Eddie Lewis free on the wings with plenty of support from outside backs Greg Vanney and Frankie Hejduk.
In fact, the U.S. started with a more offensive look than usual, using Jovan Kirovski as the target with Lewis on the left and Beasley on the right as pinched in wings. That left a midfielder triangle of Landon Donovan in the middle with Bobby Convey and Chris Armas in more holding roles in front of a back-four that saw Gregg Berhalter partner with Dan Califf in the central defense.
Even despite the American side's lack of play -- or success, when balls were sent up front -- through the forwards, a 1-0 lead was gained on a precisely-timed left-footed cross from Donovan to a streaking Beasley in front of the six-yard box in the 36th minute.
That goal marked the end of such a system, and resulted in the U.S. switching back to a 4-4-2 with Donovan joining Kirovski up top, Lewis and Beasley dropping back into flank midfielder roles and Convey taking the playmaker reigns at the top of the midfield diamond.
However, Turkey's tying goal came just three minutes later on a Okan Yilmaz penalty kick after Tuncay Sanli had a questionable call go his way when he got squeezed by Califf and Hejduk in the middle of the box.
The U.S. would have its chances throughout the rest of the match to both net the go-ahead tally through 70 minutes before Sanli scored the eventual game-winner, as well as the tying goal in the final 20-plus minutes of action. But it was the final goal by Turkey that illustrated one of the problems the U.S. side had all day.
1. Centerback play
Berhalter has seen better days with the National Team, that's for sure. Same for Califf, who was the stronger of the two throughout the match. The communication between these two didn't seem very solid, considering the hesitancy that was taken in pulling the offsides trap or in making switches and checks to runners on the fly.
The striker duo of Sanli -- remember his name -- and Yilmaz simply had a speed advantage, which they utilized to the max by making several diagonal runs to space.
Sanli's goal was a simple case of a striker playing an easy ball in front of the 18, and quickly moving to space for the return service. When he did knife through the box, neither Armas or Berhalter followed, which gave Galatasaray midfielder Volkan Arslan an alley to lay the ball to space behind the defense.
Despite this being his first cap for Turkey, Sanli calmly dribbled to the right of U.S. keeper Tim Howard and negotiated the tough angle for what he made look like an easy goal.
Both Califf and Berhalter won balls in the air, but the presence of both Eddie Pope (cracked kneecap) and Carlos Bocanegra was missed. Berhalter nearly cost a U.S. goal with an obvious foul on a tackle that never touched the ball at the top of the 18 in the 23rd minute. On the ensuing free kick, Ahmet Yildirim blasted a rocket just past the outstretched arms of Howard that rang off the crossbar.
Perhaps Arena is rotating players back there due to the hectic schedule of three games in five days, which could mean that Cory Gibbs and Bocanegra see time on Saturday against Brazil.
Normally a strongpoint for the U.S., it's a place where improvement is needed in this tournament not only for defensive measures, but also to allow the outside backs to be aggressive on runs that augment the offensive attack.
2. Target striker
Long before Brian McBride ever came through against Mexico in the World Cup or lit up the English Premiership while at Everton last winter, it was realized that the U.S. attack simply doesn't look the same without him in the lineup.
Now, no one is calling for his inclusion in this squad since he deserves a break and has nothing to prove to the U.S. coaching staff, but his absence makes the uneven play of Kirovski so apparent.
The 27-year-old striker did a great job by getting a header on goal in the 7th minute off a Lewis cross from the left, but followed such a play up with several bad touches and giveaways.
For the U.S. to utilize the speed and attacking ability of guys like Beasley, Donovan, Lewis and Convey, someone needs to hold possession and lay off balls to space. Kirovski still hasn't shown he can do that on a consistent basis at the international level, and the lack of such an element to the U.S. attack showed against Turkey.
Maybe the tandem of Taylor Twellman and Clint Mathis, who came on as strikers in the second-half, will start on Saturday.
3. Dead ball prowess
The U.S. had six corner kicks and several free kicks inside of 35 yards. Yet, nothing was ever created off such chances. The free kicks found their way either to the keeper or over the net, and a few of the corners were played nowhere near a U.S. player. This is an area where this group usually excels at, especially when Pope, McBride and Bocanegra are in the box.
Despite the fact that Arena said how Turkey deserved to win and his side didn't play well, there were some good facets of the match for the U.S. that shouldn't be lost in the aftermath.
For one, Howard was excellent, bailing out the defense two or three times. On one play, the soon-to-be Manchester United goalkeeper simply stoned an all-alone Yilmaz with a kick save from seven yards out on a point-blank shot. You didn't have to be in France or understand the announcers on Galavision to see and hear how he was leading from the back, either, in his first major international competition.
This match was also a good experience for Convey, who went the full 90 in the center of the midfield. There won't be too many 20-year-olds starting in this tournament, or playing in such a vital position. Remember that. He won balls and covered a lot of ground throughout the game.
Other than a few awkward interchanges in tight space and a few poorly-played balls to the strikers, the D.C. United player was solid.
Unfortunately for the U.S., there's only a day of rest before taking on what should be a peeved Brazilian side which lost to Cameroon on Thursday.
It'll be one of those rare occasions to play the Samba Kings following a loss, and should make it all the better experience for the young American players that are part of the 23-man squad.
(Good luck finding Telefutura.)
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. he can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.