Monday February 1st, 2016

The U.S. national team, now three weeks into its annual January camp, opened its 2016 slate on Sunday afternoon with a 3–2 victory over an Iceland junior varsity squad that yielded to the Americans for most of the match but still had enough quality to make things interesting. 

U.S. and D.C. United defender Steve Birnbaum, a substitute playing in just his second senior international match, headed home the 90th-minute game-winner off a precise free kick from captain Michael Bradley. The hosts had recovered twice from one-goal deficits but dominated the contest’s final minutes and arguably deserved the win.

Iceland was playing without the vast majority of the team that sensationally qualified for this summer’s European Championship, while U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann opted to field a relatively veteran lineup despite bringing so many Olympic-eligible players to Southern California. It showed for the most part, although a few hairy moments allowed Iceland to push the hosts to the limit.

Here are three thoughts on the first international of 2016:

Klinsmann gives the veterans a run

Nine of the 26 players currently in camp are eligible to play for the U-23 team, which faces Colombia in a do-or-die, home-and-home Olympic qualifier in late March. 

Klinsmann said this week that he and his staff “have to do everything possible to give them all the help in the world to make it happen.”

That did not include starting them on Sunday. FC Dallas midfielder Kellyn Acosta, a 20-year-old who didn't play in last year’s Olympic qualifying tournament, was the only U-23 player to take the field at kickoff—and he was deployed at left back. Instead, Klinsmann wanted to gauge the preseason progress of his more experienced players. The World Cup spine of center back Matt Besler, midfielders Jermaine Jones and Bradley and forward Jozy Altidore was intact, and Klinsmann had hinted before the game that he wanted to see how Altidore and Gyasi Zardes meshed. The LA Galaxy man started up front alongside Altidore as the U.S. stepped out in a 4-4-2.

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Veteran defenders Michael Orozco and Brad Evans, each a late arrival in camp, started ahead of younger options while Lee Nguyen, 29, and U.S. debutant Ethan Finlay, 25, were deployed out wide (although they frequently pinched in). 

Jones and Bradley held sway in midfield with the out-of-contract Jones usually playing a bit deeper, and the U.S. held a 62%–38% advantage in possession. Iceland’s Aron Sigurdarson created some problems on the American right and the hosts had a couple misadventures in back, but for the most part the U.S. carried the play against a slower, less experienced opponent. If Klinsmann were happy with what he saw, he may opt to give his younger charges more of a run against Canada on Feb. 5.

The performance of forward Jerome Kiesewetter, who entered in the 75th minute alongside new Seattle Sounder Jordan Morris, certainly whet the Olympic appetite. The 22-year-old VfB Stuttgart reserve scored six times for the U-23 team last year and had a foot in a few U.S. chances in his abbreviated appearance on Sunday, running hard onto several passes in the right channel and causing problems for the Iceland defense.

Defensive miscues keep Iceland in it

After three weeks of training, the U.S. attack was in better sync than the defense, which seemed to have trouble handling the rhythm of a game in which the Americans held so much more of the ball. When the U.S. switched off, it paid a price.

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​Klinsmann’s team has yielded the opening goal in eight of its past nine games. On Sunday, it was a poor 13th-minute clearance by Besler and the late arrival of the U.S. midfield that allowed Iceland’s Kristinn Steindórsson to power a deflected shot past goalkeeper Luis Robles. The U.S. drew level through Altidore but fell behind again in the 48th. A quick Iceland free kick left the U.S. stranded and befuddled. Several players were still focused on the referee as Sigurdarson received the ball on the left. Finlay was late on the tackle. Orozco, who shifted to right back at the start of the half, was nowhere to be found and Birnbaum, a halftime substitute, retreated as the Fjölnir forward dribbled into the penalty area and curled a perfect shot past Robles.

Iceland nearly took a third lead in the 69th, but a wide-open Birkir Saevarsson pounded his shot straight at Robles. The U.S. remained vulnerable on the counter and it seemed that whenever the visitors carried the ball into the offensive third, they got a look at goal.

Klinsmann wants his team to have more of the ball. When it does, the defense has to be sharper and more attentive.

A refreshed, rejuvenated Jozy Altidore

He’s 26 years old and is kicking off his 10th year as a senior international and yet somehow, the height of Altidore’s ceiling remains unclear. Prolific in the Netherlands and stifled in England, Altidore (now with Toronto FC) has been both unstoppable and invisible in a U.S. jersey. He had 18 goals in 37 international appearances from 2013 through ’15, which isn’t bad, but there have been too many signs over the years that he’s capable of more. Missing out on most of the 2014 World Cup and 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup with hamstring injuries added to the frustration.

This year, Altidore appears committed to raising that ceiling. He arrived in California for this month’s U.S. camp a week early and has increased his focus on fitness and diet. 

“The last couple of years have been rough, so I just want to stay healthy, stay fit and try to help my team the best that I can,” Altidore said last week.

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He certainly helped on Sunday. Granted, the U.S. dominated possession against a slower, more patient foe, but this was an Altidore who was lively, engaged and connected. He alertly ran onto two lofted passes in the first 10 minutes, and although he was offside on the first and mishandled the second, it was a sign that he was mobile and plugged in. Zardes and Nguyen stayed close and were effective in combination, and in the 20th minute, Altidore grabbed the equalizer. Zardes played a quick square pass to Bradley, who slipped the ball through to Altidore for the left-footed, first-time finish.

Altidore continued to battle as a target toward the end of the half, drawing a yellow card foul in the 45th, and then in the 59th he helped set up Orozco’s goal. Bradley’s corner kick was cleared toward the edge of the penalty area and Altidore raced to the ball, turned and hit a high pass back toward the right post. Birnbaum was there to head it toward Orozco on the Iceland goal line.

Expectations are high for Altidore this year. He should score at a high rate for TFC and be healthy and productive for the U.S. in qualifying and the Copa América.

“He wants to put his stamp on the national team program,” Klinsmann said. “So he now wants to make sure that he makes the right decisions. So we see a Jozy now coming in prepared.”

Several touches went awry and there’s still a long way to go, but that preparation and determination was evident on Sunday.

“I felt good,” Altidore told ESPN following the win. “It’s the first game of the year, trying to get our legs under us still … It’s nice to play against a real opponent and get a few minutes.... Sometimes that final pass wasn’t there, that first touch wasn’t there, but it will come in due time."

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