U.S. Scores Late, Defeating Iceland 3-2 in Friendly
January 31, 2016
STEVE BIRNBAUM made the most of his 45 minutes on the pitch Sunday afternoon, assisting on Michael Orozco's 59th minute header and scoring one of his own seconds before stoppage time as the United States men's national team secured a come-from-behind 3-2 victory against Iceland.
It was just his second appearance for the U.S. national team, and it was quite an eventful afternoon for the 25-year-old California native. In addition to his offensive contributions, Birnbaum was partially at fault on Iceland's second goal as Aron Sigurdarson curled a lovely shot around the D.C. United defender and into the back of the U.S. goal.
In the end, however, both Birnbaum and U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann will likely be pleased with the up-and-down showing. The Americans looked very strong on offense, especially in the first half, demonstrating sharp passing and decisive play for the first time in a long time. Mental lapses contributed to both of Iceland's goals and the defense could have done better, but the Yanks looked good against a talented team full of motivated players.
The United States started the game in a 4-4-2 formation, with Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones sharing central midfield responsibilities, Lee Nguyen on the left wing and Ethan Finlay earning his first U.S. cap on the right. A slimmed-down Jozy Altidore and Gyasi Zardes partnered up top.
FC Dallas fullback Kellyn Acosta, another debutant, played on the right alongside Michael Orozco, Matt Besler, and Brad Evans. New York Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles secured his second cap and his first appearance in a U.S. jersey in seven years.
Finlay got off to a bright start, showing plenty of speed, ambition, and confidence on the right side. He certainly didn't seem nervous or tentative in his first U.S. appearance, running at defenders, pushing forward with confidence, and looking to connect crosses in the box.
In fact, the entire U.S. side looked strong at the onset. Quick one-touch passes, overlapping runs, and a pervasive positivity permeated the play.
And then Iceland scored the first goal of the match.
The visitors took the lead in the 13th minute when Kristinn Steindorsson took advantage of some ball watching and sent a left-footed shot that deflected off a U.S. defender and bounced slowly past Robles and into the back of the net. It was a fluky goal, absolutely against the run of play, and it silenced the sparse crowd at the StubHub Center.
The Americans should have tied it up three minutes later when Nguyen floated an inch-perfect cross to Zardes directly in front of Iceland's goal. Playing in front of his home fans, the Hawthorne, Calif., native nodded the ball down at too sharp of an angle and it bounced over the gaping goalmouth. It was a golden chance and a terrible miss.
In the 20th minute, the Yanks got their equalizer—and it was a beauty. The sequence started near the center circle when Jones instructed Bradley to push forward. The Frankfurt native then found Zardes in the left channel and the Galaxy forward immediately delivered a one-touch pass back to Bradley on the edge of the penalty area. The U.S. captain found Altidore with a lovely ball just behind the Iceland defense. The striker did well to stay onside and then lifted a delicate, left-footed shot over onrushing Iceland goalkeeper Ogmundur Kristinsson to tie the game.
On this play and throughout the first half, the Americans barely resembled the dull, plodding team that played so poorly in 2015. Nguyen appeared to have the ball on a string and unlocked multiple offensive chances. Brad Evans was lively, pushing into the attack and cracking a powerful header that flew over the crossbar. Everybody looked vibrant and, somewhat shockingly, it appeared as though the team had a cohesive plan of attack.
The first half ended in a 1-1 tie but the U.S. should have been in front and it looked much more likely to take the lead after the break.
Iceland retook the lead right after intermission after a disputed foul call created a sense of confusion on the field. While Bradley jawed at the referee and his teammates stood flat-footed, Iceland restarted play, pushed the ball down the left flank, and Aron Sigurdarson made a nifty crossover move before delivering a beautiful shot that sailed around Birnbaum and past a diving Robles.
At this point, Iceland had two shots on goal, and both went in.
Just as they did in the first half, the Americans responded quickly to tie things up.
After a series of dead-ball opportunities on Iceland's side of the field, including two corner kicks, Birnbaum leapt up to head a ball toward open space in front of goal and Orozco pounced on the opportunity. The 29-year-old defender from Orange, Calif., nodded the ball home for his fourth international strike.
With the score tied once again, momentum shifted somewhat and Iceland, which was opportunistic in both its goals, began to improve its build-up and possession. Miscommunication along the American backline gifted a wonderful chance to Iceland's Birkir Saevarsson in the 69th minute but he shot the ball directly at Robles, who smothered the ball and held on.
The U.S. probably should have claimed the lead in the 77th minute when Acosta pushed the ball down the right wing to substitute forward Jerome Kiesewetter. Running full speed, the German-American delivered a blistering cross to the center of the box but Darlington Nagbe attacked the ball tenatively—he stuck out his right foot weakly instead of stabbing the ball with his left or perhaps even attempting a diving header—and the chance went wasting.
Three minutes later the Yanks nearly scored again, driving the ball into the box twice and attempting to use some fancy footwork to set up a close-range strike. Kiesewetter, who impressed during his 20-minute shift, Jordan Morris, and Nguyen all seemed on the verge of putting the U.S. ahead but desperate defending kept the score level.
The decisive play came in the 90th minute when an in-form Bradley provided a perfect cross to Birnbaum, who was unattended in the center of the Iceland penalty area. The six-foot-two defender blasted his header into the back of the net—it was a no-doubter—giving the U.S. a deserved, and morale-boosting victory to begin the year.
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John Godfrey is the founder and editor in Chief of American Soccer Now.