USA-Iceland Takeaways: Youngsters make their cases

Headed goals by defenders Michael Orozco and Steve Birnbaum overturned a 2-1 deficit and earned the U.S. a 3-2 defeat of Iceland at StubHub Center on Sunday.

The mix of veterans and young players fielded by head coach Jurgen Klinsmann labored at times defensively but sustained an attacking impetus for much of the game. Six players played the full 90 minutes, and five did not feature, which gives Klinsmann plenty of options for the second friendly of the year on Friday against Canada.

Here are three takeaways from the first U.S. game of 2016:

1. Unstoppable Birnbaum puts himself in the mix at center back.

A shade of the dreaded sophomore slump afflicted Birnbaum last year, his second season for D.C. United. He came on at halftime for Brad Evans, who started at right back, and Iceland breached the re-jiggered back line almost immediately. It faltered on an attack that produced Iceland’s go head goal, but he personally reversed the deficit.

Orozco scored at the back post on a Birnbaum header to tie the game, and in stoppage time the former Cal defender trailed a run by Jordan Morris to head home the winner from Michael Bradley’s corner kick.

A Rookie of the Year finalist in 2014, Birnbaum attended the January training camp last year and debuted in a 3-2 loss to Chile. His club form slipped a bit in 2015 as United lost steam near the end of the season and were blanked twice by the Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference playoffs. But against Iceland he was unstoppable.

He waited a year and three days to get his second cap and bagged his first U.S. assist and goal not far from where he grew up in Newport, about 30 miles south of StubHub Center. There’s a logjam of centerbacks in front of him, yet nobody’s starting spot is set in stone and a solid season for United will keep him in the mix. Iceland scored its first goal after a poor defensive header by Matt Besler left the U.S. defense exposed.

2. Late subs revive the attack.

After Orozco equalized, Klinsmann brought in Darlington Nagbe, who lifted the energy level in midfield and drew enough attention from Iceland that the double substitution of Jerome Kiesewetter and Jordan Morris up front pinned the opponents in their own half.

The latter pair may may be the U.S. team’s forward tandem of the future and ideally would start for the U.S. U-23s in the Olympic playoff against Colombia in March. Kiesewetter took over the right flank and numerous times burst past defenders to serve balls into the goalmouth. Morris was not quite as prominent, but worked himself into good positions and drew a defender on the corner kick that Birnbaum drilled into the net.

Nagbe started out centrally, then drifted wide when Tony Tchani replaced Jermaine Jones in the middle. This caused some confusion for Lee Nguyen, who was busy and tidy during his 90-minute stint without posing many serious threats. Nagbe slid into the middle several times to create space for Kellyn Acosta, who been caught ball-watching on the first Iceland goal but recovered to play a competent second half that included several dangerous crosses.

3. Bradley and Altidore look sharp, which bodes well for USA and Toronto FC.

Overwork is a curse many U.S. internationals must fight through, and a few veterans were left off the training-camp roster as Klinsmann selected 10 players eligible for the U-23 team. The Americans did have Bradley, their captain, who covered acres of ground and played a role in all three goals, as well as their all-time scorer among players in the team, Jozy Altidore.

Much criticism has fallen on Klinsmann for his decision to use Bradley as the main attacking catalyst but Iceland, which left many of its starters off the squad, could not contain him. He evaded several double-teams to keep possession, seldom delivered an errant pass, and throughout the game pulled Iceland out of balance by constant movement.

Bradley pushed into the attacking third repeatedly and delivered a perfectly-weighted ball that Altidore converted for the 32nd goal of his national team career. The second and third U.S. goals came from Bradley deliveries on set plays; Altidore ran down a partially cleared corner kick and lobbed the ball back in for Birnbaum to head and Orozco to finish, and then Birnbaum polished off a precise free kick to win the game.

Altidore, who has lost 10 pounds thanks to a new nutrition and health regimen, and Bradley showed a chemistry and cohesion may bode well for Toronto FC as well as the USA. TFC earned the first playoff berth in team history last year but as a sixth-place finisher was wiped out by Montreal in the knockout round.

TRIVIA. Acosta, who has played at left back for the U.S. U-23s though he plays in central midfield for FC Dallas, is the fourth player from the 2015 FIFA U-20 World Cup team to earn a senior cap. The others are Emerson Hyndman, Rubio Rubin and Matt Miazga.

Jan. 31 in Carson, California
USA 3 Iceland 2. Goals: Altidore 20, Orozco 59, Birnbaum 90; Steindorsson 13, Sigurdarson 49.
USA -- Robles; Evans (Birnbaum, 46), Orozco, Besler, Acosta; Bradley, Jones (Tchani 71), Finlay (Nagbe, 61), Nguyen; Zardes (Kiesewetter, 75), Altidore (Morris, 75).
Iceland -- Kristinsson; Saevarsson, Jonasson (Hermannsson, 46), Fjoluson, Skulason (A.I. Johannesson 84); Thorarinsson (D.Johannesson, 46), Sigurdarson, Sigurjonsson, Smarason, Steindorsson (Prandarson, 46); Gudjohnsen (Finnbogason, 71).
Referee: Jeffrey Solis (Costa Rica).
Att.: 8,803.
7 comments about "USA-Iceland Takeaways: Youngsters make their cases".
  1. Barry Ulrich, February 1, 2016 at 8:50 a.m.

    Iceland's 2nd goal was a direct result of US player stupidity. Why do players argue with the referee and why do referees continue to to allow the dissent? When has a player's dissent ever changed the mind of a referee? Accept the referee's call and keep your head in the game!

  2. Wooden Ships replied, February 1, 2016 at 10:31 a.m.

    Correct Barry. Is this a MLS attribute? Players, internationally will quibble/argue but also be aware of the likelihood of the quit restart. JA is a repeat offender and Bradley the Captain has been as well. Really inexplicable at the international level.

  3. Jim Murphy, February 1, 2016 at 11:31 a.m.

    The U23 Olympic playoff is against Colombia not Mexico, right?

  4. Thomas Brannan, February 1, 2016 at 2:09 p.m.

    Altidore's capability to me is summed up at about 1:25 with a US throw-in. The ball bounces without him controlling it and the US loses the ball. Yes, he got a goal. OK, but the overall fabric of the team is better after 74 minutes when he and Zardes and Jones, earlier, are out and the team starts to play. For the most part, USA looked better with Jones, Altidore and Zardes out. We still need a HMF. Nobody holds even though announcers call someone a HMF. i.e. Someone is supposed to hold. What is this hold the ball thing with Altidore. How can you hold the ball or keep possession when your technique is not up to international standards. The ideal is Aguero, Suarez etc. How often do they stop the ball. They help possess when necessary and go to the goal when they can and should. You don't have to be big to play the 1st striker position. I don't think the ideal is big unless the big guy has skill. Skill is key to the 1st striker. Can anyone say Ibrahimovic. I know they are not the players mentioned but for the USA Ibrahimovic is Morris and Woods is Aguero as an example.

  5. Stuart d. Warner replied, February 1, 2016 at 5:23 p.m.

    I agree entirely. Despite Altidore's goal, he is weak on the ball and doesn't play with pace; Zardes was even worse. Nguyen and Nagbe were solid on the ball and were very effective with Morris and Kiesewetter. About Jermaine Jones, what in the world are we doing playing a 34 year old guy for 70 minutes? Is he going to play Copa America!? Yikes. I'd love to see either Nguyen or Nagbe as a #10 and Bradley as a #6. And when will we see Pilisic? What a dangerous player he is already at 17 years of age.

  6. Peter Greene, February 1, 2016 at 10:10 p.m.

    Ridge...Birnbaum grew up in Irvine. He was born in Newport, the Newport of Northern California. Get it he went to the same high school as Benny Feilhaber.

  7. Bob Ashpole, February 2, 2016 at 3:39 p.m.

    What I liked about the game was that I thought that the team was well coached and managed. I thought that we were looking at a possible Olympic team for the finals. Some may think it presumptuous, but I like confidence in a manager. I still think JK puts too high a value on size and strength over technical and tactical skills (meaning I would not select Altidore or Jones as overage Olympic players--I would probably pick at least one back, two if I had medal asperations).

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