As always, you have to take the result of any friendly with a grain of salt. That goes double for a friendly featuring two less-than-full-strength squads, and triple for one in which the shape of the game is changed by subs No. 4 & 5, as it was in Sunday's 3-2 USMNT victory over Iceland in Carson, California.
This win does not mean the US are where they want to be as a unit, nor are they where they should be. But winning begets more winning, and that's a habit Jurgen Klinsmann & Co. got out of last year. So it's good to see the scoreboard light up in the right direction.
Here are a few brief takeaways:
There are a lot of things Jozy Altidore does really well and gets not enough credit for: His vision is hugely underrated, and while his first touch can come and go when receiving the ball, his one-touch passing is actually superb; he also has good defensive instincts when he's locked in and playing like he means it.
One of the areas of his game that's always left me frustrated, though, is his final third movement. Jozy's always been more likely to pull off the line and into a pocket of space or even flare out to the wings, Kenny Cooper-style, than he's been to make the sort of hard, aggressive runs off the back shoulder most teams need from their No. 9.
And then this happened, which was nice:
That was one of five curling, Chicharito-style runs Jozy made in the first half. He was offside on one of them, and well defended on a couple of others, and not all of them worked out perfectly.
But that's part of the game, right? If you're an attacker, you fail more than you succeed, and you have to live with the balance. What's truly important is getting out there and executing on the fundamentals again and again and again in order to 1) Give yourself a chance at success in the long run, and 2) Open space underneath for your attacking teammates – there's a reason Lee Nguyen had so much room to work with in the first 45.
Jozy exploding to the ball, not waiting for ball to come to him. Big difference. #USAvISL— Susaeta (@_Susaeta) January 31, 2016
Altidore's never been a persistent sort with this kind of movement, so it could be a one-off. But given the new leaf he seems to have turned over this offseason (he says he's fitter, happier, more productive, etc.) maybe this kind of performance shouldn't really be a surprise.
Toronto FC fans, you have my permission to be excited.
In the Balance
Altidore and Nguyen looked good in attack in the first half for a number of reasons. Both moved intelligently and quickly – their off-the-ball work was much better than we're used to seeing in the year's first friendly, which could be a result of these guys just being really good or a result of Klinsmann holding fewer two-a-day training sessions and instead moving toward a regimen that stresses incremental fitness improvements.
It was hard to watch Nguyen and not wonder at least a little bit how much different his US career could, or maybe even should, have been.
Again, this was just a friendly. But even so it's hard to ignore something like this:
Those guys deserve the praise they got on Twitter and elsewhere, but it also needs to be said that the balance between Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones in the first half was much, much better than we've previously seen from those two. The US played something halfway between a 4-2-2-2 and a 4-1-3-2, with Jones generally doing more of the defensive work and Bradley allowed free rein to push up into the attack. As you can see above, that's how the goal was scored.
In the second half, the US were stagnant from the run of play, with Jones and Bradley asked to be more square to each other in a 4-2-3-1. This also stranded Altidore without a true forward partner, and he had to repeatedly check to the ball instead of curling off the back shoulder as he had in the first half.
The upshot is that Nguyen actually looked better in the first 45 playing what was nominally a wide midfield spot than he did in the second 45 playing as a true No. 10.
There's your reminder that, without the proper balance in deep midfield, the US will almost always struggle. And unfortunately, the US aren't likely to keep building off of Sunday's good moments:
Lot of basic offense from the US today. Need to keep this formation to develop off it. (Not likely, but a guy can dream.)— Matthew Tomaszewicz (@shinguardian) January 31, 2016
Pulling Off and Sending Through
If there was an outstanding player for Iceland, it was winger Aron Sigurdarson, who had their second goal on a bending screamer. It seemed like every touch on the ball from him was exquisite, though the final product was often lacking.
This is pulled from our Opta Chalkboard. Red lines are incomplete passes,and green are complete:
Lots of red, but those two yellow lines are "key passes" – passes that lead to a shot. In this instance, then, it's fair to posit that Sigurdarson was playing as a pure wide attacker rather than as a two-way player. He was the one who was asked to push the US backline deeper, while center forward Eidur Gudjohnsen dropped into midfield to send him (and the rest of Iceland) through.
This is the balance Altidore, Nguyen and the rest couldn't quite strike in the second half until Jerome Kiesewetter opened things up. And it's something the US backline really struggled to deal with as Jones and Bradley flattened out in front of them.
There aren't a ton of CONCACAF teams that use this tactical look, but there are a bunch in CONMEBOL. That's something to bear in mind during next month's Copa Centenario draw.
A few more things:
- US set pieces were sublime. Not just the delivery from Bradley, but the thought and care put into constructing them. Every corner had a short outlet to bring defenders away, and every free kick was designed to have multiple options.
- Fullback continues to be an issue for the US. Kellyn Acosta, a natural central midfielder, played left back and was exposed on the first Iceland goal, while Michael Orozco – who shifted from central defense to right back at halftime – was nowhere to be found on the second.
- Bradley continues to be a more dangerous player when he arrives late into the attack rather than when he's at the point of a diamond.