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Return to familiarity helps USMNT close winter camp on high note

Aided by a return to more familiar tactics, not to mention the comforts of home and an inferior opponent, the U.S. men's national team put a halt to its five-game winless streak with a relatively easy 2-0 win over Panama at StubHub Center in Carson, California.

Here are three thoughts from Sunday's friendly, which marked the conclusion of coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s annual January (and into February) camp.

Familiarity and foundation

Klinsmann’s desire to improve and diversify the national team has required so much transition and experimentation that at times, it appears the U.S. has forgotten its roots. There are things this team does well, and to his credit, Klinsmann put them in position to do them on Sunday.

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It started with a return to the 4-2-3-1 alignment that propelled the Americans out of a funk two years ago and carried them through a wildly successful 2013, which included a first-place finish in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying and a Gold Cup title. Among the key factors was Michael Bradley’s ability to spread the ball and direct traffic from a deeper spot in midfield and Clint Dempsey’s role as a withdrawn forward, which put him in position to either threaten the Panamanian goal or retreat to gather the ball and run at the opposition.

Before leaving at halftime with a hamstring issue, Jozy Altidore showed flashes of what he can accomplish as a high striker with support behind him. Klinsmann’s most important players were positioned to do what they do best.

The U.S. tallied its goals in traditional fashion – on a set piece and on a counterattack. Bradley opened the scoring with a gorgeous 28th-minute corner kick that evaded Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo and swerved inside the far post. It was one of several dangerous balls Bradley played into the penalty area from either set pieces or open play.

Dempsey doubled the lead nine minutes later with his 40th international goal. The play started in the U.S. half with a steal by Gyasi Zardes, who looked a bit like former LA Galaxy teammate Landon Donovan as he tore through the Panamanian midfield. His through ball to Dempsey was perfect, and the captain needed only two touches to finish it off.

As Klinsmann continues to build for the future, it will be vital he doesn’t forget to let his current squad play to its strengths.

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Introducing new talent

The January camp originally was designed to give MLS-based national teamers and uncapped prospects some training time and a game or two during the offseason. But the glut of U.S. veterans signing with MLS over the past year meant this year’s camp would feel far different. Klinsmann had much of his veteran core at his disposal. He’d have to balance that opportunity with ensuring he didn’t let the chance to introduce a few new players slip away.

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​Zardes, who improved significantly for the Galaxy last season, made the most promising showing. The 23-year-old certainly had room to work against an overmatched Panamanian side but was confident and creative with the ball and combined well with his teammates from the right flank. He nearly had a second assist just before halftime with a smart chest pass to Bradley that the veteran shot straight toward Penedo.

Minnesota United star Miguel Ibarra earned his first U.S. start and was threatening early on. His skillful and incisive runs will be an asset if he can sustain them.

“I think they confirmed what they showed us the last four weeks here in camp,” Klinsmann told ESPN when asked at halftime about Ibarra and Zardes. “They’re hungry. They want to do well. They want to take people on and take risks.”

Brek Shea, although not a “young” player by any means, continued his return to the fold with a decent performance at left back, where the U.S. is thin. Meanwhile D.C. United midfielder Perry Kitchen and FC Dallas defender Matt Hedges, made their overdue debuts.

A significant victory

There may be no game on the U.S. schedule less important than the January camp friendly, but the Americans still needed this win. The week-and-a-half that followed the 3-2 loss in Chile featured more criticism and scrutiny than Klinsmann has faced in some time. Questions concerning fitness, a lack of tactical evolution and the team's overall trajectory more than three years into Klinsmann's reign were raised.

The fan base seemed more skeptical than before, and some even hung anti-Klinsmann banners at StubHub Center on Sunday. The last thing he needed was another poor result heading into a tough stretch that precedes this summer’s Gold Cup. The next five games are against Denmark, Switzerland, Mexico, Netherlands and Germany. Only the one vs. Mexico is at home, assuming one considers a match against El Tri in San Antonio a home game.

Ruts can be hard to escape, and a bit of confidence and continuity was required, no matter how it was acquired.

Panama didn’t put up much of a challenge, but the U.S. went out Sunday and dictated the course of a game for the first time since before the World Cup. That will quiet some of the consternation for a time.