The United States concludes its annual winter camp tonight with a friendly against Canada. Back in the day, this was more of a heated rivalry between similar teams, but in the last decade and a half the US has been battling with Mexico to be the giant of CONCACAF while Canada has not made the World Cup (or even the Hexagonal). As things stand today, Canada probably takes this game to mean a whole lot more than the US does.
However, this particular US camp is full of players with a reason to be very focused on this game. There are young players trying to seal their place in the Olympic qualifying playoff side, good MLS players who are looking to break into the full USMNT rotation rather than just be January call-ups, and veterans who - following a bad 2015 for the whole male half of the program - need to prove they actually deserve their reserved spot on USMNT rosters. It may only be a game against Canada, but after 2015 the USMNT shouldn't be overlooking anyone.
Key player: Steve Birnbaum
Birnbaum again? Aww yeah, again and again!
Against Iceland last week, Birnbaum made a mistake on a goal - not the first or most grievous mistake, but he was involved - within 3 minutes of entering the game. For a player making his second international appearance, this could have been a disaster in terms of maintaining focus and confidence.
Instead of folding, Birnbaum more than made up for his error. His precise header back across the frame of goal set Michael Orozco up to equalize, and D.C. United's top young defensive prospect ended up scoring the winner himself by soaring over the crowd to nod Michael Bradley's corner kick home in the 90th minute.
Birnbaum's defensive prowess wasn't really on display for much of the game due to a bunch of different reasons. The unfamiliar back four was a problem, as was the overall poor performance from defensive leader Matt Besler and a lack of organizational help from Luis Robles. Maybe the bigger problem, though, was that Jurgen Klinsmann paired Bradley with Jermaine Jones in a double pivot. We've seen that story before: Neither player holds in deep positions, leaving a large gap between the lines that Iceland exploited on every single attacking move that had even modest success. Tactics are important sometimes.
However, Klinsmann is a huge fan of mentality, and he will surely be impressed with Birnbaum's confident recovery from a mistake to make a real difference in the game. With Michael Orozco and Brad Evans released from camp early, Birnbaum has only Besler and Tim Parker competing for time at center back (unless Matt Polster is tried there, which...don't. He is a defensive midfielder, full stop. Please.). There's a significant chance that Birnbaum gets a chance today to build on the good parts of his performance while correcting the mistakes. If he does that, he may push himself up the ladder in a center back hierarchy that is very much in flux right now.
Key question: Can the USMNT prove that 2015's troubles with CONCACAF teams are in the past?
There is nothing more unsettling for the USMNT than to use your warm-up year before World Cup qualifying to completely lose your mental advantage over the rest of CONCACAF. The US saw Honduras, Jamaica, and Panama play without fear on American soil, with the Jamaicans winning, Panama snatching 3rd place on PKs, and Honduras feeling unlucky to lose. Even Haiti, with a roster of USL, NCAA, and French lower division players, took the field without fear against the United States. A bad year was capped off by a home loss to Mexico in the strange CONCACAF Cup soon thereafter.
The first two qualifiers last fall helped restore some of that, but not by much. St. Vincent & the Grenadines took a lead on the US in St. Louis, after all, despite a crowd of over 43,000 and the fact that their roster included numerous players who have real-life jobs rather than pro contracts. The US ended up blowing out the Vincy Heat, but it still wasn't ideal. This was followed up by a 0-0 draw in Trinidad, which was only just barely an acceptable result.
It's time for the USMNT to give CONCACAF opponents a reason to be nervous about playing in the US. That starts with being clearly superior to teams like Canada on home soil. Canada is not a bad team by any means; on pure talent, they should probably be either getting into the Hex or coming close. They started qualifying with a crucial win over Honduras and a road draw at El Salvador; given Canada's history on the road in qualifying, that's a major step forward.
Nonetheless, this is a game that even an experimental US team will be favored in. Being favored is nice, but stepping onto the field against an opponent that is already rattled is better. The US needs to rebuild that aura that saw teams in our neck of the woods wishing they were anywhere else but playing the USMNT in the United States. That starts today.
Match date/time: Sunday 1/31, 10:45pm Eastern (the broadcast starts at 10:15, but there will be a pregame show).
Venue: StubHub Center (Carson, CA)
TV: Fox Sports 1 (English), UniMas (Spanish), Univision Deportes USA (Spanish)
Online: Fox Sports Go (English)
Treat this as tonight's gamethread.
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