United States show few bright spots in ugly friendly win vs. Canada
CARSON, Calif. - The U.S. national team relied on late heroics for the second time in five days as Jozy Altidore's 89th-minute winner led the Americans -- who beat Iceland with a 90th-minute goal here on Sunday -- past Canada in a friendly match at StubHub Center. Here are three quick thoughts following the game.
1. Jones still isn't a center back
After trying out Jermaine Jones in central defense in the seven months following the 2014 World Cup, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann declared the experiment dead early last year. But on Friday, Klinsmann again deployed the career midfielder into the heart of his back line. And again, Jones looked like a guy playing well out of his comfort zone, struggling with his positioning even while making a few key defensive interceptions.
Still, Klinsmann's apparent tinkering was easier to understand this time around. With veterans Brad Evans and Michael Orozco released to their clubs on Tuesday (both started in Sunday's 3-2 win against Iceland), the coach had two options: start an uncapped defender with limited professional experience -- youngsters Eric Miller, Tim Parker, Matt Polster and Brandon have just 75 MLS appearances combined -- in a back four that already included international neophytes Kellyn Acosta (one cap) and Steve Birnbaum (two), or turn to Jones to play alongside fellow vet Matt Besler.
Klinsmann went with the second choice, one that had the added benefit of opening a spot for Mix Diskerud in central midfield. With Jones unlikely to be available for a pair of March World Cup qualifiers against Guatemala -- the out-of-contract 34-year-old will start serving a six-game suspension as soon as he finds a club, and won't have played a competitive game in nearly two months if he remains unsigned -- the decision made sense as a one-off.
2. The game was a real stinker
As far as early-year games go, Sunday's victory against Iceland was open and entertaining throughout. Friday's contest? Not so much. Both teams were shockingly sloppy at times during the first half, with wayward passes and heavy touches a common theme all over the field. And while the quality of play got a little bit better after the intermission, the match looked like a glorified preseason scrimmage.
The atmosphere inside the stadium sure didn't help. Just 9,274 fans showed up for the tilt. Maybe they knew what was coming. Games between the U.S. and its northern neighbors are rarely things of beauty. With pride on the line, the hard-tackling, defensively organized Canadians always seem to play their bigger border rivals tough. The previous two meetings between the teams -- friendlies in Toronto in 2012 and early the next January in Houston -- ended scoreless.
Only substitute Ethan Finlay's inch-perfect cross to goal-scorer Altidore at the death kept the streak from stretching to three straight.
3. There were a few bright spots for the U.S.
Former Stanford University standout Brandon Vincent -- Jordan Morris' teammate with the 2015 NCAA champion Cardinal -- came on for left back Acosta to start the second half and impressed. (Klinsmann said on Fox's broadcast that Acosta was pulled because he picked up "a little bit of a hamstring.") The speedy left back got forward on the flank on a number of occasions, and Vincent even forced a good save from Canadian goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau with a low shot in the 71st minute.
Diskerud, making his first start since last July, was the cleanest American on the ball, and got better as the game wore on. Besler was rock-solid in defense. Michael Bradley was Michael Bradley, and Finlay made a game-changing play off the bench. As for Altidore, he was rewarded for his hard work, scoring for the second straight game after squandering several good chances earlier in the match. Oh, and two wins to start 2016 isn't bad, either.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.