US national team look to gain "understanding" vs. Iceland in prep for real competitions

CARSON, Calif. -- Three weeks of work finally lead to a payoff Sunday afternoon for the US men's national team, who take on Iceland in the first of two matches at StubHub Center to wrap up the annual “January” camp. It's a match that holds some importance even if the result is meaningless.

Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's camp this time features a mix of national team veterans and newcomers, along with key figures for the U23 team that will meet Colombia in March for a berth in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. They'll face off against a rising Icelandic side missing nearly all of its chief players.

“It always difficult to put expectations on it, because we just started preseason,” Klinsmann said during a pre-match news conference Saturday morning. “[This US team roster is] certainly not the roster that's going to be in Guatemala [during the World Cup qualifiers in March], it's not the roster that's going to play [this summer in] Copa America. But it's a group of players that we want to kind of give a head start and get them going and benefit from it then a couple weeks down the road.”

The U.S. has several veterans available--captain Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Mix Diskerud in midfield, Matt Besler on the backline, and and Jozy Altidore up top. Meanwhile, nine other players are looking for their first cap. How well they all mesh means more than whether they win, to some degree.

Or maybe not.

“We want to win the game. That's the most important thing right now,” Diskerud said. “It's start of a new season for everybody here, and it's been a fun camp--a lot of training--but it's the games that matter, and that's what we've been looking forward to.”

They've got Canada on Friday night at StubHub to conclude the camp, and Klinsmann says he'd like to see the players “pick up a rhythm, enjoy themselves, start to build a little bit of a partnership in different areas of the team.”

“If it's a backline that gets a better understanding for each other, the midfield and the connection to the forwards,” he said. “We have Gyasi [Zardes] there [up front], we have Jozy there, so over time you want to see that they develop a real kind of understanding for each other's runs, that they work off of each other. You want to see they meld a bit, the way they worked the last three weeks there.”

Iceland is preparing for its first European Championship under co-coaches Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson, and it's an experimental group. All but three of the 18 players are based in Iceland or Scandinavia, and only six have more than 10 caps.

The veteran is 37-year-old Chinese-based forward Eldur Gudjohnsen, Iceland's career goals leader, with 25 in 83 international appearances. He, along with veteran defenders Birkir Mar Saevarsson and Ari Freyr Skulason, and backup goalkeeper Ogmundur Kristinsson, saw action during the Euro qualifiers. But five players are uncapped, including PSV Eindhoven defender Hjortur Hermannsson and Real Oviedo defender Diego Johannesson.

Diskerud, who was raised in Norway and played there until joining New York City FC last year, is familiar with the USMNT's upcoming foe because “a lot of Icelandic players go through Norway and other teams in Scandinavia.”

Iceland is tiny, its population of about 323,000 smaller than four cities in Greater Los Angeles. For so long, the country's been a minnow in European soccer, but has undergone a tremendous evolution under Lagerback and Hallgrimsson.

They finished second in their Euro qualifying group, two points behind the Czech Republic, while conceding just six goals in 10 games and beating the Netherlands home and away. They reached the European playoffs during qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.

“If you see what Iceland's done the past year or two, it's pretty remarkable,” Diskerud said. “They don't have their first team here maybe, but it's still a group that's up and coming and has done very well.”