By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 1, 2016) US Soccer Players – History has taught the USMNT and its observers not to read too much into friendly results at this time of year. With that disclaimer out of the way, Sunday’s 3-2 comeback win over Iceland offered compelling signs of a fresh start for Jurgen Klinsmann’s team at the dawn of a new year.
Sure, the defensive breakdowns that twice handed the visitors the lead in the second half were galling, self-inflicted wounds. Still, bearing in mind the issues that afflicted the USMNT most chronically through the low points of a discouraging 2015, the victory at StubHub Center presented cause for optimism. To be more specific, after months of frustrating stagnancy, the Yanks’ attack showed sparks of real life.
Sunday’s starting 11 saw Lee Nguyen, Gyasi Zardes and Ethan Finlay supporting Jozy Altidore in a 4-2-3-1 formation that allowed Michael Bradley to dictate the tempo from a deeper midfield position than he did for most of last year. While not an entirely new concept for the USMNT, this look with this particular group of personnel seemed to play to nearly everyone’s strengths. The result: eight shots in the first half, including Altidore’s well-taken 20th-minute finish, the cap to a slick sequence which surely ranks as one of the smoothest, most attractive goals the US has scored in some time.
It’s often been argued that Altidore, and American strikers in general, do better with a partner up top. On this occasion, Klinsmann stoked more dynamism – and ensured less predictability – by pushing three bodies up to support him from a wider range of angles, with Bradley often arriving late to further unbalance the Icelandic defensive shape.
Just as importantly, the creative chemistry between them was incipient, yet evident – even if Finlay may need another cap or two to get as comfortable in US colors as he has been for Columbus Crew SC. Later, substitute Jerome Kiesewetter turned in a solid shift out wide that may earn him further chances to participate in this interplay, perhaps as early as Friday’s clash with Canada. Taking Altidore’s spot for the final 15 minutes, Jordan Morris continued to show both energy and intelligence in his latest cameo.
No one had a better first half than the enigmatic Nguyen, who completed all 25 of his passes in the first 45 minutes and deserved an assist for the delicate angled cross he lofted into Zardes’ path in the 16th minute. Klinsmann afterwards called Nguyen “definitely one of the winners of this period right now,” a belated but welcome step forward for the 29-year-old Texan. His USMNT career holds the strange feature of a yawning gap of nearly nine years between his senior debut – way back in 2007 – and his first start (Sunday).
“Lee came a little bit different to last year. He was really prepared for this camp,” Klinsmann said postgame. “From day one on, he set the tone. He says, ‘OK, I was here last year, didn’t make that impression that I wanted to make, so I better make it right now.’ So he was unquestionable in the starting lineup after a week already for us.”
Nguyen brings a quality that’s been elusive for a large chunk of Klinsmann’s tenure: A pure playmaker, someone whose vision and ambition in the attacking third destabilizes defenses and simplifies the jobs of his teammates. Bradley often finds himself shoehorned into a #10 role. While his intellect and range allows him to adapt to many tasks, he’s never looked entirely at ease in that spot. Like Darlington Nagbe, another late-blooming Yank addition, Nguyen brings a crafty mentality and an innate comfort on the ball that helps foster longer strings of possession and sharper combination play around the opposition’s box.
Here it’s important to remember what lies ahead this year. Whether the US are laying siege to a bunkered CONCACAF underdog or gasping for air against the world powers they may meet in the Copa America Centenario, these are the players that can help influence a game’s tempo in powerful ways.
Admittedly, Iceland was at times content to keep their shape and absorb pressure. But the USMNT nonetheless deserve praise for racking up some of their best possession metrics in months: 577 total passes (132 more than they managed over 120 minutes in the CONCACAF Cup vs. Mexico), with an overall accuracy rate of 86 percent, including 167 of them connected in the final third.
That last number is noteworthy because it’s head and shoulders ahead of anything the squad mustered in some of last year’s biggest games. Spending more time in the opposition’s defensive end is certainly no inherent guarantor of scoring or success. But it’s quite encouraging in light of the staleness that has crept in at this team’s worst moments under Klinsmann. It also hints at something harder to document with raw statistics, that much-needed growth in terms of a collective personality.
The traditional US stereotype is that of a committed, hard-working team battling to overcome limitations of imagination and technique. That’s an old saw that the program has struggled to shake even to this day. One powerful antidote is the growing inclusion of schemers like Nguyen and Nagbe – and dare we say it, perhaps even younger faces like Christian Pulisic, who just made his Bundesliga debut at age 17 with Borussia Dortmund over the weekend.
Creative American players do exist. If Klinsmann is finally ready to entrust them with bigger roles and responsibilities on the USMNT, things are looking up already in 2016.
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