Jozy Altidore and Lee Nguyen impress as the U.S. starts 2016 with a win
CARSON, Calif. -- Three points from the United States' 3-2 win vs. Iceland.
Kristinn Steindorsson's deflected effort put the visitors ahead after 13 minutes, but Jozy Altidore leveled matters seven minutes later after a clever through ball from Michael Bradley.
Aron Sigurdarson put Iceland in front with a curling effort just three minutes into the second half, but Michael Orozco pulled the hosts level with a headed goal in the 59th minute.
It was left to Steve Birnbaum to settle matters, as he nodded home Bradley's free kick in the 90th minute to give the U.S. the victory.
1. It's early, but Altidore looks sharp
Altidore has had good runs before, only to see fitness issues erode his confidence and effectiveness. Yet the early impressions of the U.S. forward reveal a player showing an increased commitment to his game. He showed up to January camp a week ahead of his teammates and looks leaner than at any time in recent memory.
That increased dedication was evident in this match. Altidore was making the kind of demanding runs that test defenses and one such foray saw his deft finish pull the U.S. level in the 20th minute.
Gyasi Zardes and Bradley did plenty of heavy lifting in the run-up, with Zardes' layoff allowing Bradley the time and space to find Altidore. But the striker's run played a part as well and Altidore's chip over advancing Iceland goalkeeper Ogmundur Kristinsson showed composure that he has often lacked.
Altidore also showed greater willingness to engage in the dirty work required by a forward, drawing four fouls. He even bagged a hockey assist in the second half when his chip was headed across goal by substitute Birnbaum for Orozco to nod home.
Altidore might have added to his tally just before halftime had he not been prevented a clear breakaway due to a foul from Jon Fjuloson that earned the Iceland defender a yellow card. But it did speak to the danger the U.S. man posed throughout.
So is this a sign that Altidore is poised for a breakout 2016 campaign? That is impossible to tell at this stage. Certainly some poor touches indicated that the preseason rust hasn't been shed entirely, and there will no doubt be bigger challenges to come. But he has to start somewhere and this match counts as a first test passed.
2. Nguyen shines in his first start
Lee Nguyen was a frequent presence in national team camps for much of the past year, yet has struggled to get minutes. His three substitute appearances in 2015 amounted to just 78 minutes, and Sunday's match marked his first start in a U.S. uniform.
Nguyen's lack of opportunities has been something of a head-scratcher given his creativity. Regardless of the reason, the New England Revolution midfielder made the most of his opportunity on Sunday.
He continually found space tucking from the left wing and, while he didn't get on the score sheet, plenty of his passes created danger, including a 16th-minute cross that Zardes should have put on goal, but which instead bounced over. Nguyen remained involved in the second half when he took up a more central role in support of Altidore and, later, Jordan Morris.
Nguyen will certainly find it difficult to get starts when the full U.S. team reconvenes for World Cup qualifying in March, especially given the form of Fabian Johnson. But at minimum the Revs star has earned additional call-ups in the future.
3. Defense gets punished, even as Bradley and Jones find better balance
The U.S. defense was by no means horrible on the day, but it was given a lesson in how mistakes can get punished by good teams. In the run-up to Iceland's opener, Matt Besler twice had opportunities to clear the danger, but failed to do so, allowing Steindorsson to knife in and score when his shot was deflected by Orozco.
The U.S. then fell asleep on Iceland's second, with a quickly taken free kick allowing Sigurdarson -- who had been a menace on the left flank all game -- to run at Birnbaum and bend his shot just inside the far post.
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It was a shame, given the fact that Bradley and Jermaine Jones largely controlled matters in the center of midfield to the tune of the home team's 62-38 advantage in possession percentage. The balance they showed was also improved with Jones more content to focus on defensive matters, thus allowing Bradley to venture forward and contribute to the attack, including his sublime assist on Altidore's goal.
Jones has long stated that he prefers to have a midfielder play behind him so he can freelance, and there certainly could be games going forward in which that approach might work better on the day. But long term it looks like the current arrangement makes the U.S. a better team.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.