The U.S. Men’s National Team rang in the new year by delivering a narrow victory, and also a mixed overall showing.
The U.S. used a 90th-minute goal from Steve Birnbaum to come from behind and defeat Iceland, 3-2, in a friendly at StubHub Center on Sunday in the Americans’ first match of 2016. The winning start to the annual winter camp was a welcome sight after the subpar year the U.S. endured in 2015, and provided head coach Jurgen Klinsmann with plenty of information as he continues to prepare for a busy few months that include World Cup qualifiers and the Copa America Centenario.
Some of that information is positive, but not all of it. The U.S. grabbed the late win thanks in large part to set pieces, while its back line struggled for much of the game. The midfield did do well in possession and Jozy Altidore was as active and engaged as he’s been in months, but still the Americans were playing from behind up until Birnbaum nodded home his ferocious game-winning header with just seconds remaining.
Up-and-down play is to be expected given that most of the U.S. players are in their offseasons, but nonetheless there is plenty of room for growth before they return to the field on Friday to take on Canada.
Here are some of the biggest takeaways from the Americans’ 3-2 win over Iceland:
JURY STILL OUT ON WHETHER JONES CAN PLAY AT D-MID
For much of the first half, Jermaine Jones looked surprisingly comfortable sitting behind Michael Bradley to collect balls and distribute them forward. Jones and Bradley have had a tough time in the past finding the right balance between one another of when to attack and defend, but their roles seemed much more defined and better executed vs. Iceland.
That said, the jury is still out on whether Jones can be deployed as a defensive midfielder in the long term. It was easy for Jones to stay deeper and more disciplined than he has in most of his recent U.S. outings because Iceland did not possess the ball or attack all that much. At least not in the first half, which saw Jones rack up the majority of his 71 minutes played.
The veteran just had to float around the midfield line to pick up the ball from the defense and connect his passes against a side that didn’t really press high or force the issue. Against tougher teams that have more attacking bite, Jones will find things more difficult. Not only will he have to defend and run more without the ball, which he has shown he can do, but he will also have to fight the urge of bombing forward with reckless abandon.
Jones likes to be on the ball often, and has found plenty of success playing that way, including in the New England Revolution’s run to the MLS Cup Final in 2014. Still, that might not be what is best for the U.S., meaning he will have to demonstrate in the coming months that he can fully adapt to his new role and its tactical requirements if he is to continue to be an every-game starter.
ZARDES, ALTIDORE SHOW ENCOURAGING SIGNS UP TOP
Jozy Altidore and Gyasi Zardes may have had only one goal between them, but they both had some good individual moments at the top of the U.S. attack.
Altidore was the one to grab more people’s attention because of his first-half equalizer and overall movement from the start of the match. Sure, his touch let him down on a few instances, but he made plenty of well-timed runs that caught Iceland’s defense flat-footed.
Dropping 10 pounds in the offseason — as Altidore revealed postgame — may have played a big part in his ability to be so active, but so too was the fact that he again was paired next to another forward. Altidore and Zardes did not really combine too often, but nonetheless the tactical setup allowed the Toronto FC striker to not have to carry the burden of having to play with his back to goal. He was able to face up and attack Iceland’s defense, and that has almost always been the better recipe for success for Altidore.
Zardes was also involved in several of the Americans’ attacks in the first half before being moved to the left flank after halftime and becoming less effective. He used his speed to put himself in good spots in that opening stanza, and should have had a goal when he got on the end off a Lee Nguyen cross from close range.
His best play may have come on the sequence that led to Altidore’s 20th-minute equalizer. While Bradley slipped in the final ball that Altidore finished home, it was Zardes who created space for the U.S. captain to do so with a one-time pass to the middle. Zardes’ quick decision left Iceland defensive midfielder Runar Sigurjonsson running literally in a circle, and bought Bradley just enough time to play Altidore in on goal.
VETERAN BACK LINE DISAPPOINTS
The U.S. back four struggled mightily on the few instances that Iceland kept the ball and attacked, and it was mostly the veterans, not the inexperienced youngsters, who had problems.
Matt Besler got the disappointing defensive display started with his poor decision to try and bring a ball down in the penalty area in the 13th minute. Not only did he misplay it, but he then got away with handling. Nonetheless, the damage was done, as Kristinn Steindorsson pounced on the gaffe and fired a shot on frame that ricocheted off of Michael Orozco before going into the back of the net.
Orozco may have not been able to do much about that deflection, but he could have done better on Iceland’s second goal. He was one of several U.S. players to fall asleep while Iceland quickly played a free kick, and that allowed for Aron Sigurdarson to find enough space down the flank and unleash a venomous effort past goalkeeper Luis Robles. Sigurdarson also came close to tallying on another play in the first half, one in which Brad Evans failed to close the Icelandic midfielder down properly.
Offseason rust or not, the U.S. had enough experience in defense to perform better than it did on Sunday. That the debuting Kellyn Acosta and Steve Birnbaum were the players to avoid any major blunders was a surprise, and not a great one at that.
KIESEWETTER DESERVES LENGTHIER LOOK VS. CANADA
Jerome Kiesewetter was only on the field for 15 minutes, but still managed to make a good impression in his USMNT debut.
Kiesewetter was one of five substitutes that Jurgen Klinsmann inserted in Sunday’s match, and the Stuttgart youngster was arguably the one that showed the most promise. The 22-year-old German-American attacker demonstrated confidence from the first moment he stepped on the field, as he had a willingness to go at defenders and whip in balls into the penalty area.
Kiesewetter’s first ball in was a doozy, as a matter of fact. He raced down the right side and hit an appetizing cross to the center of the penalty area that fellow substitute Darlington Nagbe wasted by knocking it wide despite having the entire goal at his mercy. Moments later, Kiesewetter delivered another dangerous ball on the ground that was cleared. Then, in the waning minutes, he used his aggressiveness and explosiveness on the dribble to draw the foul that led to the free kick that Birnbaum headed home.
While it is true that Kiesewetter impressed when the game was more open due to tired legs and the flurry of substitutions on both sides, he has shown with the U.S. Under-23 Men’s National Team that he is dynamic enough to make an impact either by scoring goals himself or setting up teammates.
The senior U.S. side could certainly use more of that, and it is for that reason that Klinsmann should give Kiesewetter a longer shift on Friday against Canada to see how the promising prospect handles it. If Kiesewetter fails to do well, then at least Klinsmann will know that he is not yet ready to make the jump to the top team. If he does, Klinsmann’s pool grows that much deeper.