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.
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
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
exploited a longer offseason resulting from the Revs’ elimination in the Knockout Round to earn starts in both games.
Defender Matt Besler,
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
. (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
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.