After a frustrating 2015, the United States will be looking to improve the fortunes of their men's soccer program starting with this month's training camp and today's friendly against Iceland. November's World Cup qualifiers feel like a distant memory, and the US will look to do much better in 2016. After all, 2015 saw the worst Gold Cup performance in ages for the USMNT and yet another stumbling, bumbling attempt to qualify for the Olympics.
Those facts are intertwined in this camp, which features nine players hoping to make the squad that will face Colombia in a do-or-die playoff for a spot in Rio. Jurgen Klinsmann has also reached the point where he's going to have to start incorporating more of his best young players at a higher level. This is a good chance for those USMNT rookies to play alongside some of the bigger names and prove that they're just as good (or, hopefully, better) than the veterans. Iceland, fresh off a surprisingly successful run through Euro 2016 qualifying, should provide a stern test.
Key player: Steve Birnbaum
This could have been a harder choice, but Perry Kitchen isn't a DC player any more and Bill Hamid is injured. Oh man, that's depressing.
Anyway, Birnbaum is our remaining USMNT candidate, and he's in a decent situation to make an impression. There are 5 players in camp that can play center back: Birnbaum, Matt Besler, Tim Parker, Brad Evans, and Michael Orozco. The latter two aren't really specialists, though, leaving a situation where Birnbaum and Parker may be competing with each other to partner Besler for the majority of today's game. Against an Iceland side that has pretty good size, Birnbaum's aerial ability makes him a pretty good partner for Besler. In other words, our guy might have a leg up.
For Birnbaum, this game needs to be an improvement on his previous cap against Chile. There, he actually was the most impressive defender in the USMNT's brief 352 experiment, but also made a couple mistakes as the game wore on and the formation was ditched for no good reason. Ideally, we'll see more of the former and none of the latter. If Birnbaum plays today and makes no mistakes, he's probably going to edge his way closer to future call-ups. If he's involved with a goal against, though, we may see him phased out for someone like Parker or even Omar Gonzalez (who may get back into Klinsmann's good graces with good form in Liga MX). This is a good opportunity for Birnbaum, but it's also a narrow window.
Key question: Can we pick a plan and stick to it this time?
Staying on that 352 experiment for a second...what even was that? The talk before camp and during camp was to give a very different formation a try, and it got tossed aside after 45 minutes in a game that was purely for experimenting. It was also a good signal that the USMNT was about to embark on a strange year. In the end, the USMNT saw a long-standing home unbeaten streak against CONCACAF sides thoroughly broken with losses to Jamaica and Mexico sandwiching a penalty kick defeat in the farce that is the Gold Cup Third Place game.
Any team can lose, though. It was the nature of these defeats that really makes you wonder about the direction of the national team. Klinsmann's team often looked lost while bouncing from a 4231 to a diamond to a 433. There was a slight drift towards something like a plan when World Cup qualifying got underway, but good news like Darlington Nagbe's call-up and Tim Ream getting back into the picture was tempered by having to come from behind against St. Vincent & the Grenadines and then scraping out a 0-0 draw against a Trinidad and Tobago side that could probably place just one player in the USMNT pool.
CONCACAF is tougher than people give it credit for being, but it's not as tough as it has seemed recently. A big part of that is the constant experimenting with formations and tactical ideas. If the USMNT is going to approach a year with numerous qualifiers in the right way, they need to start building towards something rather than staying with the ad hoc approach that has defined Klinsmann's rather controversial tenure.
Match previews: Stars and Stripes FC takes four different angles in their preview. The full roster for today's game is here.
Match date/time: Sunday 1/31, 3:45pm Eastern
Venue: StubHub Center (Carson, CA)
TV: ESPN2 (English), UniMas (Spanish), Univision Deportes USA (Spanish)
Online: WatchESPN (English)
Treat this as tonight's gamethread.
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