USMNT Report: The Defense Almost Ruined It

The USMNT has a strong start with a 3-2 win, but was it strong enough?
by Herb Scribner   |   Sunday, January 31, 2016

USMNT Report - coverage of the United States Men's National Team

There’s an old adage that dispels everyone’s ideas about Greenland and Iceland. It’s something to the effect of: Iceland is green and nice, and Greenland is full of ice.

But the United States Men’s National Team’s 3-2 win over Iceland Sunday was anything but nice, as the match was a much closer than it needed to be, mostly because a lackluster USA defense.

A 3-2 win is fine for now, it’s a little troubling for USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann as his USA B team only won by 1 goal against Iceland’s own B team, putting the USA is danger as the 2016 Copa America and World Cup qualifying near.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Michael Bradley — There’s no question that the USA general made some huge errors in this game. His decision to talk to the referee in the second half distracted his team, leading to a counter attack by Iceland that resulted in the European nation’s second goal. But otherwise, Bradley was crisp in his passing and constantly picked his head up during attacks with solid assists and setups. Even late on, he was providing passing balls inside to try and find the winning goal, and his free kick at the end sealed up the victory.

ANALYSIS: You can’t get too upset with a 3-2 win. And given it’s the January camp, which is often used as a time to experiment with younger Americans and fresh faces, a 3-2 win seems even better. Putting fresh faces together in a month’s time is never easy. 

Except that this was Iceland’s B team, void of some key players — like Sigurdsson, Finbogason and Sigthorsson — which doesn’t make a one-goal win look all that great in the larger scope of things.

The USA had most of the possession and were making some great attacking runs. There were a few missed chances, like Darlington Nagbe’s and Jordan Morris’ towards the end of the game, that would have put the USA up and not made this much of a contest. The linkage between Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Lee Nguyen in the first half was some of the better attacking US soccer we’ve seen. It helped, too, that Iceland’s defense was often passive, mostly relying in patient steps to clear the ball away. A few more crisp passes from the USA would have pushed America far ahead in the scoreline earlier. Bradley never gave up and his free kicks were crucial in getting the USA back in the game.

"Overall worked very hard, pushing and pushing because they wanted to win this game," Klinsmann said after the game.

But really, this close game boils down to the USA’s defense making too many mistakes. It was often a catastrophe. For the first goal, Matt Besler left an incredible amount of space on his side and failed to clear the ball, which led to the opening goal. For the second strike, the entire USA midfield and defense failed to play the whistle, leading to an easy counter attack goal for Iceland. In fact, the second goal required midfielder Ethan Finlay to track back and defend, with true defender Michael Orozco avoiding the situation altogether. 

This was common for the US during the game, though — players often playing out of position. There wasn’t a true formation for the US, which forced some players to play in unnatural places, something we’ve seen consistently from Klinsmann’s coaching. The biggest example of this came with the starting lineup when defensive midfielder Kellyn Acosta played left back and Nguyen, a creative midfielder who’s known for scoring goals and making great attacking plays in the middle, was forced to play on the outside wing.

There’s no question that there’s a lot of talent on the US side. Some players are a little older, like Jermaine Jones, but the younger boys have the talent to defeat a secondary Iceland side, especially since many of these players are coming off really strong MLS seasons or are currently playing very well overseas. For example, Steve Birnbaum had a great season for DC United, and his talent showed with his header to give the USA the win. Jordan Morris, a relatively unproven entity in the professional soccer realm, was fast and quick, too. Darlington Nagbe added some spark, as did Finlay throughout game. This team has the talent.

The trouble, though, is that some of the more talented players were in the wrong positions. Nguyen was way too far outside and Costa was playing too defensively. Jones started the game despite his lack of speed. And since there’s no real guide for keeping a formation, players often find themselves scattered around in a chaotic mess.

Part of the USA’s failure may be related to Klinsmann’s philosophy for his defensive backs to push up, too. Yes, it resulted in two goals — one from defender Orozco and the other from defender Birnbaum — but when the defense drifts too high or gets too involved in the midfield, it leaves the center backs under pressure and susceptible to attacks. Had this become too much of a problem, the defense may have really marred a night for a really strong offense.

Still, the USA can hold its head high with a win, as it should. This is definitely a confidence builder moving forward give Iceland qualified for the 2016 Euros this summer. But the bigger issue still exists — this was a lesser Iceland side, and a defensive display like this may work against smaller teams, but won’t help the USA in this summer’s Copa America, which Klinsmann has said is one of the main priorities for him this summer.

They have the talent to make a decent run in that tournament, but maybe not the tactics.

NEXT UP: February 5 — Friendly: United States vs. Canada, StubHub Center, California. 10:15 p.m. EST, FS1, UniMas, UDN.


UMass Amherst
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SN managing editor and award-winning journalist, Herb has always been known as "The Soccer Guy" wherever he goes. He's a leftback in most outdoor and indoor leagues. He also writes for Deseret News National.