With MLS competition on a break until March, the annual January camp for the U.S. National Team is typically used as a reward for some of the league’s up-and-coming players. The timing of the camp and its ensuing friendlies clash with the European season so stars like Tim Howard, Fabian Johnson and Geoff Cameron were not included in Jürgen Klinsmann’s roster. The first test for this MLS packed roster was a visit from Iceland at a sparsely attended Stubhub Center in Los Angeles.
The American roster featured several players that were making their first ever starts for the Stars and Stripes including Ethan Finlay, Lee Nguyen and Kellyn Acosta. Things didn’t exactly get off to a dream start for these newcomers, however, as Iceland took the lead less than 15 minutes into the match. A miscalculated header from Matt Besler at the back coughed the ball up to Iceland in the penalty area. Kristinn Steindórsson got the ball at his feet and his deflected drive left Luis Robles completely helpless in net. The goal highlighted a theme that would plague the U.S. today, as sloppy defending came back to cost them.
Despite the early setback, the Americans stuck together and within seven minutes leveled the score. Some good interplay heading into the final third opened up space for Michael Bradley near the top of the box, and the Toronto FC captain played a brilliant through ball to find Jozy Altidore streaking into the penalty area. Altidore took a glance up and then calmly looped his shot over Ogmundur Kristinsson to level the scores. Altidore’s strike closed out the scoring for the opening 45 minutes and sent the two sides into the dressing room deadlocked at a goal apiece.
Similarly to the start of the first half, Klinsmann’s side dug themselves another hole to start the second half. After a foul near the halfway line, the U.S. players stopped playing as captain Michael Bradley voiced his opinion to the referee. The visitors took full advantage of this lapse in attention as they took a quick free kick that cut open the Americans’ backline. The ball eventually found its way to Aron Sigurdarson, and the 22-year-old hit an excellent curved shot past Robles into the far side netting. Sigurdarson’s goal highlighted the lack of focus that was on display for portions of the opening 45 minutes for the U.S., and the hosts were punished.
Even without their European talent, the U.S. had to be considered the favorite going into the match, but for the second time they were forced to play from behind. The much-needed equalizer came just over ten minutes later from an unlikely source. After a failure from Iceland to properly clear a corner kick, Steve Birnbaum was able to head the ball back into the danger area, and fellow defender Michael Orozco knocked the ball into an empty net from less than a yard out. After Orozco’s goal, the two sides continued to exchange chances, with Darlington Nagbe coming the closest to breaking the deadlock, but it looked like this match was heading to a draw. That was until Birnbaum came up big again in the air, heading in the winner in the 89th minute.
Birnbaum’s goal, which was also his first ever for the national team, was good enough to steal a win. You can’t ask for a better start to the new year if you’re Jürgen Klinsmann, but the German manager will surely be upset at the sloppiness his side showed throughout the match. Next up for the U.S. is somewhat of a local derby as they host Canada on Friday. Expect some changes to the starting lineup for this match as Klinsmann experiments with the squad.