In all the breathless drama surrounding Landon Donovan's failure to launch for the 2014 World Cup, Clint Dempsey's recent absence went somewhat unnoticed.
Dempsey was set to face Azerbaijan until minutes before kick-off in the United States men's national team's recent friendly. The Americans won that match relatively comfortably without Dempsey, so his absence was a footnote.
But the two friendlies the Americans have left before World Cup play pit them against much stronger opposition than Azerbaijan. Their next opponent on Sunday, Turkey, is ranked 39th in the world by FIFA—one spot below the Americans' most beatable World Cup opponent, Ghana.
After Turkey, the Americans get one more tune-up match against 44th-ranked Nigeria before going to Brazil and playing games that count.
If the Americans are to have any chance to survive their "Group of Death," Dempsey needs to transfer his Major League Soccer scoring touch to his USMNT play. And fast.
Dempsey leads the Sounders in goals, shots and shots on target, and the club is atop the league's Western Conference as of this writing. So Dempsey is as potent as ever.
Dempsey will also have some favorable history working for him against Turkey.
The United States has played Turkey only once in this decade, fittingly a last friendly before the 2010 World Cup. The Americans beat Turkey 2-1 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia on May 29, 2010.
Dempsey scored the game-winner for the Americans that day.
"Dempsey’s first touch pushed the ball forward and then he showed great balance in riding the tackle of Sabri Sarioglu before stuffing his shot under (Volkan) Demirel from five yards away," noted the match report on USSoccer.com.
Care to take a guess on which American assisted on both Dempsey's game-winner and Jozy Altidore's earlier tally in that match?
"The U.S. Men’s National Team put together a marvelous 2-1 come-from-behind win against Turkey with second half goals from Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey, both of which were assisted by Landon Donovan," the report observed.
Which is sort of the whole point as to why Dempsey's performance against Turkey is such an important bellwether for the United States as it lurches ever closer to World Cup action.
It was all well and fine that the Americans scratched out two unremarkable goals from substitutes Mikkel Diskerud and Aron Johannsson to beat Azerbaijan late in the first of the three dress rehearsal friendlies for the United States.
Even the most optimistic American Outlaw, however, cannot possibly believe that the Yankees can overtake Portugal or Germany (or even Ghana) without offensive production from their stars. Dempsey is as bright a star as the Americans have, particularly with Donovan watching from Los Angeles.
So while Jurgen Klinsmann and his coaching staff would enjoy a win over Turkey, their focus will almost certainly be on what Dempsey and to a similar degree Altidore are doing (or not doing) against the Turks.
Dempsey did not play against Azerbaijan. Altidore was on the scoresheet, but to say he really played against Azerbaijan is probably a generous statement given how quiet he was. Against Azerbaijan, for all his production, Altidore looked as though he was wearing a Sunderland shirt in Stoke-on-Trent.
Turkey did not qualify for the World Cup, but the thought of taking them lightly is ridiculous. They have won their last four international matches on the trot, including a road win over the Republic of Ireland and a neutral site win over Honduras.
Perhaps most impressive in that winning streak was Turkey's 2-1 victory over Zlatan Ibrahimovic's Sweden side. Zlatan left scoreless after 45 minutes. Not many clubs get to say that.
And given their outside-looking-in status from a World Cup perspective, surely Turkey would like nothing better than to prove to the football world that they can contend with and maybe even beat a World Cup side like the United States in this friendly.
All told, the Americans have chosen a stout and appropriate opponent for this second-to-last World Cup preparatory exercise.
Klinsmann and Dempsey's 22 teammates will watch with interest to see how much of his MLS magic Dempsey has packed for Brazil against the Turks.
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