Saturday February 6th, 2016

Jozy Altidore ended a frustrating evening and rescued the U.S. national team, along with the smattering of fans in attendance at StubHub Center and those watching at home, from a third consecutive scoreless draw against Canada with an 89th-minute goal, lifting the Americans to a 1–0 win outside Los Angeles.

The U.S. is now unbeaten against Canada in 17 consecutive games (9-0-8) dating back to 1985.

Next up for the Americans is a pair of World Cup qualifiers against Guatemala in late March and a home-and-home playoff between the U.S. Under-23 team and Colombia that will send the survivor to the Olympics. Although there wasn’t much to take away from this four-week camp tactically, and although many who will participate in those games next month weren’t in California, there certainly were members of the senior and U-23 teams who entered 2016 needing a physical or mental boost. And there were good signs over the past week for several men who have some significant responsibilities ahead.

Here are three thoughts from Friday’s win:

Altidore rescues a wasteful U.S.

After scoring three goals in last weekend’s 3–2 win over Iceland, the Americans couldn’t buy one for most of Friday. They were a couple minutes from being shut out by Canada’s Maxime Crépeau, a 21-year-old who spent 2015 with the Montreal Impact’s USL team. Crépeau made six saves and benefited from a miserable night of finishing from the American attackers.

Canada started brightly, but the U.S. was the better team for most of the match. It didn’t matter. Jordan Morris (16th minute) and Altidore (17th) came close early, with Altidore hitting the right post twice on the same shot. An active Gyasi Zardes, who was playing on the right wing, was the provider on each occasion. In the 38th, Morris and Altidore linked up (something coach Jurgen Klinsmann said he wanted to see on Friday) but the new Seattle Sounder sent his lofted shot just wide.

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​Altidore missed on a header in the 54th, hit a shot straight at Crépeau a minute later and nearly chipped the goalkeeper in the 83rd. The Toronto FC veteran was making good runs, but the final product just wasn’t there as the game inched toward what seemed like an inevitable scoreless draw. The hosts had managed 16 shots with no luck.

Then, finally, Altidore broke through. Late substitute Ethan Finlay hit a perfect, floating cross from the left. Altidore beat defender Sam Adekugbe to the far post and sent his header back past Crépeau. It was Altidore’s 33rd international goal, leaving him one behind third-place Eric Wynalda on the alltime U.S. leader board.

“The [pass from Finlay] scores the goal—the pace of it, the positioning of it—I just had to be there to knock it in,” Altidore told Fox following the game. “As a player, you kind of find this moments where you say, ‘This is the one.’”

The positive individual signs

Klinsmann referred to the games against Iceland and Canada as “scrimmages,” which says all we need to know about how important the results really were. This camp, which combined senior and U-23 players, really was about getting those in the middle of a long MLS off-season prepared for a long, important year ahead.

Altidore was the big winner. After missing most of the 2014 World Cup and 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup with injuries, he resolved to change things up this winter. He altered his diet and training, lost 10 pounds and was in rhythm and involved against Iceland and Canada, taking 10 shots and scoring twice across the two matches.

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“Just the past two years were really rough for me,” he told Fox. “I thought if I cut some muscle, cut some weight and made myself a bit leaner, it would help me … I feel better. I feel lighter and I feel more mobile.”

Elsewhere, Morris didn’t look out of place and German-born winger Jerome Kiesewetter, Morris’s U-23 strike partner, made an impression once again as a reserve. Captain Michael Bradley was smart, consistent and at times appeared to be in midseason form. Mix Diskerud started next to Bradley in central midfield on Friday and was sharp at times, perhaps signaling that he’s ready to put last year’s disappointing campaign with New York City FC behind him, while Finlay and Kellyn Acosta were among the new national teamers who whet the appetite for more. Zardes improved over his performance against Iceland. Lastly, Steve Birnbuam’s knack for winning balls in the air leaves him in frame to battle for additional minutes in back.

Klinsmann makes puzzling defensive choices

Jermaine Jones is not a center back, and Klinsmann has tried the veteran midfielder there before without success. Jones also is unlikely to play in next month’s qualifiers. The six-game suspension he incurred for bumping a referee during last fall’s MLS playoffs will kick in as soon as he signs a contract (even if it’s outside MLS), leaving him ineligible to face Guatemala.

Yet Jones started in the center of defense on Friday. Birnbuam, a center back with D.C. United who had a goal and an assist in the win over Iceland, was at right back and Acosta, a defensive midfielder for FC Dallas, started for the second straight game on the left. Matt Besler was the only defender in his natural position. And all this was happening was in front of goalkeeper David Bingham, who was making his international debut.

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​Klinsmann’s back four wasn’t bad, although the adventurous Jones was fortunate not to be whistled for a first-half penalty kick after taking down Canada’s Cyle Larin. But it was pointless. Friday’s result was meaningless. Klinsmann did have limited options with the departures of campers Matt Miazga (to Chelsea), Michael Orozco (to Club Tijuana) and Brad Evans (injury), but the manager easily could have started Birnbaum alongside Besler while taking a longer look at one of his U-23 players on the flank (debutant Brandon Vincent, who relieved Acosta at the start of the second half). That would have told the coaching staff a lot more about each team’s potential (the senior and Olympic squads) than giving the 34-year-old Jones a run at a position he won’t be playing for club or country.

The back four that started against Canada will never play together again. Shutting out Canada (again) in a friendly wasn’t worth the lost opportunity to plant the seeds for future chemistry or offer an Olympic hopeful some senior international experience.

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