For once, USA starts off a year just as it's supposed to

By Ridge Mahoney

Defensive miscues. Sloppy touches. Blown assignments. Confusion.

These negative facets of play have been part and parcel of U.S. friendlies played in January and early February, and they were present against Iceland a week ago Sunday and Canada last Friday. Iceland left most of its starters home yet scored twice, and Canada nearly pitched a full-game shutout, conceding only one goal in the 89th minute.

The Americans won both games, which hadn’t happened since 2012, so the camp certainly generated a feeling of fulfillment based on results. They scored late to grab the victories, rallying twice against Iceland to win, 3-2, and prevailing over their northern neighbors when Jozy Altidore headed home the game’s only goal.

That battling spirit hasn’t always been present in recent years, particularly in friendlies and especially those that fall early in the year. Certainly the injection of younger players into a veteran team gave the camp a hungriness and eagerness that carried over into the games, even though a few of those U-23 players who were summoned played little or didn’t even see the field.

The full value of the camp is to be assessed in late March, when the senior team twice plays Guatemala in the middle games of its Concacaf World Cup qualifying semifinal round, and the U-23s take on Colombia in a two-game playoff for a berth in the 2016 Olympic tournament.

Guatemala is a troublesome opponent yet anything less than four points in the two games would re-ignite inquiries into the team’s direction. On the other hand, a very doable six-point sweep would clinch a spot in the Hexagonal and open up the lineup sheet for the final two games at St. Vincent & the Grenadines and at home against Trinidad & Tobago.

Colombia cranks out tough, talented players at all levels and the U-23s won’t prevail without a strong effort in both legs, the second of which is to be played at home in Frisco, Texas. Head coach Andi Herzog wasn’t able to get many of his players who are with European clubs for a separate camp, and so he used the long camp to continue his evaluations and game-test as many as he could.

One of the many criticisms that have haunted Jurgen Klinsmann since the World Cup is the senior team’s success in friendlies and failures in competitive matches. Granted, there haven’t been many of the latter yet the record is bleak. Its only win in the last five competitive Concacaf games is a romp over St. Vincent & the Grenadines in the first World Cup qualifier three months ago. Losses to Panama (shootout) and Jamaica in the Gold Cup and a 3-2 loss to Mexico in the Confederations Cup playoff have called into question whether or not the U.S. is even the second-best team in the region.

Those questions will persist even if the USA sweeps past Guatemala. A good showing in the Copa America Centenario would change the outlook slightly or considerably considering who the USA plays -- the draw will be held Feb. 21 -- and how well it performs. And this, in a convoluted way, brings us back to the first two friendlies of 2016, during which the USA did several things seldom seen since it left Brazil eliminated by Belgium in the round of 16.

Against Iceland and Canada, for long periods, the U.S. looked good. It exuded a sense of confidence and coordination. There was energy and communication front to back, players were constantly moving in tandem, and the ball moved at good pace and purpose. Even if the game didn’t much matter in the big picture, the players played like it mattered to them. The veterans bought in just as completely as did the U-23s.

Altidore cared enough to come in a week earlier and 10 pounds lighter. Michael Bradley always gives his full commitment yet in this camp looked sharper and fitter – and probably healthier? – than he has in years. Midfielder Lee Nguyen exploited a longer offseason resulting from the Revs’ elimination in the Knockout Round to earn starts in both games.

Defender Matt Besler, who responded sharply when Klinsmann criticized his fitness at the start of January camp last year, served as back-line anchor as Klinsmann rolled out different tactics and personnel in the two matches. He and Bradley were the only players to go the full 90 minutes in both games, and with a slew of candidates at centerback he has the chance to emerge as that vocal, reliable leader in the back line noticeable by his absence in many games.

Much reaction from both games has, rightly, focused on the solid showings of Brandon Vincent, Kellyn Acosta and Jerome Kiesewetter. (Jordan Morris is a fixture on both squads.) The continuing progress of Darlington Nagbe adds further hope for the future on the seniors, and Steven Birnbaum did well in only his second and third appearances.

But it is the veteran core of Altidore, Bradley and Besler and others that must carry the senior team through 2016 and erase the memories of troublesome struggles against Concacaf teams in 2015. Qualification for the Hexagonal isn’t enough; this is the year the USA is expected to win and play well, and the first two friendlies of 2016 suggest that the right ingredients have been added to the pot.

Yes, they should have scored more goals and Altidore squandered a few good chances. Yes, they switched off and gave away the second goal to Iceland. Yes, they could have done a lot of things a lot better.

They played to win and they played well enough to win. No matter the opponent or time of the year, there’s a standard of commitment and competence for the national team that must be attained and for once, they started off a year just as they are supposed to.
17 comments about "For once, USA starts off a year just as it's supposed to".
  1. Kevin Sims, February 9, 2016 at 8:53 a.m.

    I can not agree with the assessment ... "Against Iceland and Canada, for long periods, the U.S. looked good." The attacking quality of play was uneven and the backs were fortunate to escape punishment for technical errors and poor tactical judgement.

  2. beautiful game, February 9, 2016 at 10:23 a.m.

    "Solid performances..." means consistency for 80+ minutes...haven't seen that in a long, long, long time.

  3. Kent James, February 9, 2016 at 11:38 a.m.

    Against Canada, we had long periods of possession, occasional creative interplays between 2 or 3 players, and Canada rarely looked likely to score, so I guess you could say we looked good, but I do think you're stretching the definition. We didn't look bad might be more realistic, but given the competition (and the context), I'm not sure it means much. Felt more like a scrimmage that we didn't want to be embarrassed by losing...

  4. Carl Walther, February 9, 2016 at 11:57 a.m.

    They feel good about beating Iceland?
    Yes, and when I want to feel good about my abilities, I play against a middle school team.

  5. Vince Leone, February 9, 2016 at 12:22 p.m.

    You mean the Iceland that qualified for Euro 2016 by beating the Netherlands both home and away? When people equate a country's size with its soccer prowess, I first point to Uruguay (population 3+ million) as a counter example. There are many others.

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, February 9, 2016 at 6:21 p.m.

    This was an Iceland B team, although our side had a lot of new faces too.

  7. James Froehlich, February 9, 2016 at 12:38 p.m.

    This is really a priceless moment! I am in nearly complete agreement with Mr. Mahoney! While for me the scores were irrelevant, what the team tried to do and succeeded often was most important. They played successfully out of the back, often using short, quick passes to work out of danger. As mentioned, they pretty much dominated the midfield. I loved seeing Nguyen literally dancing across the field, shrugging off a couple of chippy challenges; Nagbe consistently taking on defenders, then passing cleanly to an outlet; headers being delivered to a teammate, not blindly upfield. This is what I have been waiting to see! Yes, there were lots of miscues, physical and mental, but the key was that we were TRYING! Yes, Canada is not prime competition, so any successes need to be taken with a grain of salt. HOWEVER, where exactly does a team learn to be a "good" passing team? Is it supposed to just spring, fully formed out of nothing? LOL. I actually read a comment that complained that we needed to stop trying to do the short, quick passes because we kept giving the ball away! We have a raft of good young players who have the ability and the guts to try to be creative! It's a new start!

  8. Wooden Ships replied, February 9, 2016 at 2:58 p.m.

    Lets hope JK will support the short possession style. We do however can't play that style with JA, JJ and GZ. Insisting upon the holding mid I think also hinders are transition to a dynamic possession style. If MB can't consistently interplay equally with another center mid then he too is a delaying our evolution. I would even be happier if we went to a 4-3-3, instead of a defensive mid. I like the 4-4-2 first. But, get players on the field that can build, hold, cycle, switch and probe. For me that would be a new beginning!

  9. Ric Fonseca, February 9, 2016 at 4:06 p.m.

    Woodie, I agree with you, but agree even more concerning MB, because, sadly and unfortunately his demeanor and his overall body language tells me he'd rather play as a "lazy CFB" not wanting to venture too much into the attacking third, and not even wanting to run, run, and run some more as an attacking or "linking" CMF.

  10. Bob Ashpole replied, February 9, 2016 at 6:44 p.m.

    While I respect your opinions Ric, this one has me puzzled. MB runs more miles per game than anyone. In my view the US is hampered because it doesn't have an established midfield. I think MB changes his game to fit the players around him, which is not making the most effective use of him. All that running indicates to me a weakness in the other positions. I think he is best used as a holding midfielder or box to box center midfielder. Neither of those positions involves much movement into the penalty area. That space is more often used by the flank players and forwards. Both positions are the ones primarily responsible for controlling the center of the field. In the past (circa Bob Bradley) I thought that Torres, Donovan, Dempsey, Feilhaber, and Cameron would all work well with MB, but for whatever reason, JK didn't see it that way. All of this you know, which is why I am confused by your statement that implies that MB lacks aggressiveness and doesn't want to run.

  11. Kent James replied, February 11, 2016 at 10:42 a.m.

    Bob, I think you're right on this one. I've never understood the idea that MB is lazy. As you point out, he runs more than anyone else (I think in the WC, he ran the 2nd most of anyone in the tournament). So while the short passing game is not his strength, the laziness argument is inaccurate. I think it may come from the fact that occasionally when he loses the ball on an offensive foray, he doesn't immediately sprint back; but that's usually because he'd just covered huge amounts of ground. I think MB's natural role is the defensive CM, with occasional ventures forward. He can start the short passing game because he sees the field well and his initial passes are usually pretty accurate (his pass to Findlay v Canada, e.g.), but he's not going to play tika-taka in the box. He should be playing the role Jermaine Jones currently plays (when the latter's in the midfield).

  12. beautiful game, February 9, 2016 at 6:33 p.m.

    Vince, Iceland didn't field their #1 squad...what did the USMNT did that so so inspiring? As for Canada, super-minnow team, mediocrity par excellence.

  13. Ric Fonseca replied, February 9, 2016 at 7:21 p.m.

    Bob Ashpole, well while you opine that "MB runs more miles per game than anyone..." OK, your opinion, and that he "changes his game to fit the players around him..." OK, your opinion respected but I don't agree. But, let's focus on the now, the present, but you shouldn't be "confused by your statement that implies that MB lacks aggressiveness and doesn't want to run...(sic)" well if the shoe fits for MB, then it fits. Saludos cordiales amigo!

  14. beautiful game, February 10, 2016 at 10 a.m.

    MB or anyone else on the squad who can run more miles than the average means absolutely nothing. It's what u do with the runs, what u make happen, and what is delivered. This running around argument has been argued far too long.

  15. Wooden Ships replied, February 10, 2016 at 2 p.m.

    Agree with you there I w. I think distance covered probably resides with, or should, our outside mids/wings. Anyway, MB yes can cover ground and has some nice games and some ineffective games. Partly his mental readiness, partly the style they're playing. He can make some really quality passes given space to do so. He is rather stiff with the ball and would probably struggle in cha cha. I have enjoyed and appreciated his playing for our country though.

  16. Kent James replied, February 11, 2016 at 10:46 a.m.

    I w, I agree that it is more important what you do with your runs than how many you make (and I think MB is guilty of making a lot of useless runs; trying to exert high pressure on someone who has that ball at his feet 20 yds away, e.g.), but if you run more than anyone else, it does prove you're not lazy. And while I don't know how they do it (microchips in the shoes I think are somehow employed), in the modern game, they do measure how many miles players run, and MB is way up there.

  17. beautiful game, February 10, 2016 at 6:28 p.m.

    Show me a squad that cuts off passing angles and I'll be a happy camper.

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