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