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.”
Arnhem sits on the banks of the Rhine River, a sleepy Dutch city 60 miles from Amsterdam. The town usually enjoys a quiet existence, except for the roars that emanate every weekend from the legions of black-and-yellow-clad fans that pack the GelreDome, home to Arnhem’s top attraction: Vitesse.
Matt Miazga can accept responsibility for disturbing the peace in town last spring. The American defender brought some of the madness of the GelreDome to Arnhem’s avenues when he and his Vitesse teammates paraded through with the 125-year-old club’s first trophy: the 2016-17 Dutch Cup.
“It was amazing to be a part of that first trophy,” Miazga said. “Playing in final, that joy, that excitement and just that goose bump feeling after winning was amazing. The city was crazy. We had a big parade and a big celebration after. There was a stage in the middle of the city. Probably 30 to 40,000 fans were there cheering. It was an awesome celebration.”
When Miazga signed to play in Europe, he didn’t imagine he’d hoist a trophy and spark one of Arnhem’s rowdiest parties in recent memory. This sleepy hamlet has served as an important step in his single-minded quest to become the best player he can be.
“He came here with a mission,” said Marc van Hintum, Vitesse Sporting Director. “He’s a winner that you don’t see every day. That is something that gives him an extra dimension. His mentality is superb. He’s a guy that comes in and says ‘I need to succeed. I need to train hard, work hard every day, take my rest to train hard the next day.’ Of course he has the ability to play in Holland, but what makes him exceptional is his mentality.”
In Arnhem, Vitesse serves as the main show in town. There’s not a long block of fancy nightclubs and the libations of Amsterdam seem worlds further away than just a 70-minute car ride. As a kid in the suburbs of New York, Miazga picked soccer over everything. He missed school dances, dinner invitations and countless excursions with friends in favor of training and games. As he grew up, those decisions formed Miazga’s unilateral focus. In Arnhem, the lack of alternatives makes the decision a foregone conclusion. That makes the city an ideal home for a footballer devoted to the perfection of his craft.
“I'm here to play football,” Miazga said. “I go train, I sleep, I eat, I rest and repeat and play games. It’s not a big city. There’s no distractions, no extracurricular activities. You just come home, do what you have to do, focus on your craft and prepare. That’s been very beneficial for me.”
Miazga’s parents forged his one-track mind from an early age. He started to play soccer because his Polish parents grew up around the game back in their home country. When he first started to kick the ball around at age four, it didn’t take long to realize that his parents passion would also become his.
“A lot of different kids, a season comes and they play a different sport,” Adam Miazga, Matt’s father said. “I said to him ‘You’re not going to play a different sport, you choose one sport, what you want to do. We’re not going to jump from flower to flower and try everything and when the season is done, you don’t know anything. If you want to play soccer, let’s do it.’”
The local Clifton Olympians provided Miazga’s first competitive soccer, but as he conquered game after game in his small pond, a new challenge became necessary and Miazga joined the New York Red Bulls’ academy set-up. He once again rose to meet each obstacle in his path, and conquered the U.S. Soccer Development Academy as a U-15/16 age group champion in 2012.
His imposing frame and knack for physical, lock-down defense caught the attention of scouts from all over as he led the Red Bulls to the Academy championship. Miazga signed a letter of intent to attend the University of Michigan in 2012, but the Red Bulls organization had bigger plans for the young defender. In 2013, he signed as the eighth Homegrown player in club history.
Miazga’s first professional contract indicated that he figured into New York’s future plans, but his progress began slowly. In 2013 and 2014, Miazga only saw the field sparingly across a handful of appearances. Everything changed in 2015, when new head coach Jesse Marsch came to Harrison, N.J. Miazga would carry the banner for a wholesale shift in organizational philosophy.
“I felt strongly that Matt just needed to be challenged in a big way,” Marsch, now an assistant coach for German Bundesliga side RB Leipzig, said. “There was a lot of change in the organization, an emphasis away from the superstar player and more toward developing young players. He was never really entrusted to do the job. It was mostly because it was a team of veterans and a team of very established players.
“In the previous teams, the young guys were treated like the guys who carried the bags and they were the butt of the jokes, but they weren't really engaged as a real part of the team. I told him for that mentality and shift to change, it was going to be on his shoulders and even though he was 19 and it wasn't fair for to demand that he become a man now, it’s the reality of this business. The best young players, they grow up quickly.”
Prior to 2015, Red Bull Arena had served as a final home for some of the game’s biggest names and a haven for MLS veterans. Legends like Thierry Henry closed out their careers in Harrison and the team enjoyed moderate success. Marsch had other ideas. He gave Miazga just what he needed: an opportunity.
“He gave me that role to try to establish myself as a significant member of the team,” Miazga said. “I embraced that challenge. I thought I took it on well and he kept pushing me along. I really knew what it meant to be part of a professional team fighting for trophies.”
Marsch’s trust in Miazga may have seemed misplaced at the start. In the season’s first match, the young center back committed several errors that almost cost the Red Bulls a draw on the road at Kansas City. After New York survived to salvage a point against Sporting, Marsch didn’t show Miazga the bench. While they broke down his mistakes, they took more time to discuss his mindset and how he translated the tactics to the field. Miazga started for the Red Bulls the following week, and logged 24 more appearances throughout the season.
Miazga’s mission in those matches: shut down the opponent’s best attacking threat. Week in and week out, he would line up with a singular focus to shut down the most dangerous strikers in the league. Sebastian Giovinco. David Villa. Cyle Larin. No matter who lined up on the other side of the field, Miazga would do everything in his power to keep their name off the scoresheet.