It is not uncommon to see U.S. Men’s National Team players struggle with nerves in their debuts. The weight of the moment can get to them, and has caused even the most gifted youngsters to deliver duds.
Kellyn Acosta could have been the latest example of that, but he fought off those customary first-game jitters to turn in a performance that both he and head coach Jurgen Klinsmann were proud of.
The U.S. got 2016 started on the right foot by defeating Iceland, 3-2, in a friendly at StubHub Center in Carson, California, on Sunday, and one of the main talking points after the match was the steady overall play of Acosta. The 20-year-old FC Dallas regular got the nod at left back, a position both familiar and foreign to him, and showed the type of encouraging signs that have been seen far too sporadically at that spot in recent years.
“I think after he kind of settled his nerves after 10-15 minutes, he really played like he belonged in this team,” said Klinsmann. “It was really, really fun to watch.”
That Acosta, a natural defensive midfielder, was deployed out on the left side of the defense was a fairly new development. The promising up-and-comer — who earned his first call-up this month after a strong 2015 MLS season — had been looking sharp and drawing positives reviews in training at right back with the U.S. these past couple weeks.
Klinsmann moved Acosta to the left fullback spot in recent days, however. The U.S. boss was counting on Acosta’s versatility and talent to win out despite the fact that the fourth-year professional had limited experience at that position.
Acosta had only played, and struggled, there at the Under-20 World Cup last summer, but concerns about him having a tough time vs. Iceland were put to rest in the first half as he held his own defensively. It was in the attack, though, where Acosta did not look all that comfortable.
Not until he shook off those first-game butterflies, at least.
“I was really excited, more so nervous at first,” said Acosta. “I just didn’t want to make mistakes and I think I kind of played into my timidness. As the game went on, I was (less) anxious and ready to contribute and I think that really helped me.”
It was not as if Acosta was poor in the first half. He avoided turning the ball over in dangerous spots, and was able to overlap to join in on the the attack on a few occasions. Still, the end product and confidence were lacking, which was part of the reason why the U.S. was so one-dimensional in the attack in the opening 45 minutes.
Acosta was able to provide improved play after halftime. He was more aggressive getting forward, and looked more at ease when on the ball. On one play, Acosta even slipped in a neat ball behind the Icelandic defense that could have led to a quality chance on goal, but left midfielder Gyasi Zardes did not correctly read the play and failed to anticipate the pass.
Promising moments like that largely eluded Acosta during the young Americans’ U-20 World Cup campaign last summer, but coming up with a few more of them in training in the next few weeks could lead to him being integrated into the U.S. Under-23 Men’s National Team before its Olympic qualifying playoff vs. Colombia in March.
Acosta was left off the roster that fell short of directly reaching the summer games in Brazil last October, but might be doing enough right now to convince U.S. U-23 head coach Andi Herzog that he’s worthy of filling one of the unsettled fullback spots next time around.
“I felt like I put myself in a good position, but at the end of the day it’s coach Herzog’s opinion of whoever he wants to play on the field,” said Acosta. “Right now I think I’ve been doing a good job and I’m just going to continue progressing and continue doing well. Hopefully he chooses me at the end of the day, but all I can do is just keep working hard and hope everything falls for me.”
Acosta will have another glorious opportunity to state his case before the home-and-away series vs. Colombia, as the senior U.S. team returns to StubHub Center on Friday to take on Canada. Acosta believes he did well for himself in his debut on Sunday, but knows there is more he can show.
“I think I just need to be more comfortable,” said Acosta. “Now that I’ve got this game, this weight off my shoulders, now I just know what to expect. Canada is a good team, they’re going to be tough, but I think I’m ready to go. I think I know what it takes (after) playing in my first cap, and I’m ready to go.”