The annual winter camp for the United States has long been a proving ground for both fringe and up-and-coming players.
Steve Birnbaum is one player who didn't waste his opportunity, as the second-half substitute scored the game winner in the 90th minute. The DC United defender also recorded an assist in his second international appearance as the US came from behind twice to defeat Iceland 3-2.
Former Columbus Crew midfielder Kristinn Steindorsson opened the scoring off a deflected ball for Iceland following a failed clearance from Matt Besler in the 13th minute. It took the Americans only seven minutes to respond, with good build up play from Jermaine Jones and Gyasi Zardes. Michael Bradley would then find Jozy Altidore, who put it into the back of the net with a neat chip finish.
To start the second half, Birnbaum entered for right-back Brad Evans, who exited as a precaution for an injury. This slid center-back Michael Orozco out wide, and it cost the US minutes after the opening whistle. Aron Sigurdarson got behind the US on a quick restart, catching Orozco out of position and evading a tackle from Ethan Finlay before firing a shot around Birnbaum and past US keeper Luis Robles to restore Iceland's one goal lead.
Despite one of their best displays in some time, which was aided by the inclusion of Lee Nguyen in particular, the US offense still struggled to generate great scoring chances and ended with only four shots on target. Aside from Zardes' headed effort in the first half, a bouncing header from a Nguyen chipped cross that really should have been in the back of the net, the only chances created were the goals. Furthermore, the final two came on set pieces.
In the 59th minute, Orozco redeemed his error with a point blank finish off a Birnbaum second-chance header. It was Orozco's 4th international goal. The initial ball came from Altidore after picking up the ball near the box following a US set piece. Birnbaum headed it back across the goal where Orozco, who was only in camp because Matt Miazga left early, finished it on the goal line.
The winner was also an excellent buildup that created a set piece. Two substitutes, Darlington Nagbe and Jerome Kiesewetter, combined to give the US a set piece deep in Iceland's half. Nagbe fought through traffic and contact to run forward and spring Kiesewetter, who used speed down the flank to draw the foul. At that point, all Bradley had to do was put in a good cross and Birnbaum powered it home.
Considering the US out-shot Iceland 16-4 and held a 61%-39% advantage in possession, it was Iceland who were ruthless on the counter, capitalizing on two mistakes in the defensive half from the Americans. But the positive moments on offense far outweighed the nervy moments on defense. A few rough instances were to be expected from a young backline, and largely the defense did well to help the US maintain possession.
This game will likely be remembered for the new faces that were afforded opportunities. Jurgen Klinsmann handed Nguyen his first international start and gave three players their first caps: Kellyn Acosta, Ethan Finlay and Tony Tchani.
Luis Robles (GK) - 5 - I can't fault him for either goal but honestly, he didn't have much to do. His only save was from close range and right at him after another blown defensive assignment. I don't think he hurt his stock today, and should still be in the mix for the #3 GK spot going forward.
Kellyn Acosta (LB) - 6 - Of all the starting defenders, Acosta arguably had the best day if only because played 90 minutes and wasn't directly responsible for a goal. A few of the little moments I saw were a Jose Goncalves-esque shield to get a US throw-in, and pinning Iceland deep in their own corner late in the game. I don't think left-back is his best position, since he didn't do much going forward, but he certainly can be an option down the road.
Matt Besler (CB) - 4 - He's got to clear the ball on Iceland's first goal. Yes, the US could've done better to recover from that error but a veteran like that shouldn't make those mistakes. Still the starting CB alongside Geoff Cameron against Guatemala though.
Michael Orozco (CB/RB) - 5.5 - Getting caught out on the first goal was bad, but his goal and the rest of his day were much like the rest of the USA's when you eliminate the errors. Tidy, efficient and not a whole lot to do in the middle of the field.
Brad Evans (RB) - 5 - Had to be subbed off as a precaution with a hamstring knock, but didn't do anything wrong. I wish he could've combined more with Finlay down the right flank in the first half.
Lee Nguyen (LM/CAM) - 7 - It's a shame he didn't get on the scoresheet, because he gave Iceland fits for most of the night. Deployed as a left midfielder, he spent most of the first half tucking into the middle and wreaking havoc between Iceland's midfield and defense. In the second half, as a more central player, he tried everything he could to complete a pass into the box but Iceland was able to stuff most of the efforts.
Michael Bradley (CM) - 7 - Vintage Bradley. High completion rate on his passing, two set piece assists and just moving anywhere and everywhere with and without the ball. He's at his best when he's not forced to create and can come forward and see the field to lead the attack.
Jermaine Jones (CM) - 5.5 - It wasn't Jones' best day, but far from his worst. Some wayward passes but he started the buildup to the USA's first goal, which is what you want him to be doing to allow Bradley to do more of the attacking work.
Ethan Finlay (RM) - 5.5 - I liked a lot of the things Finlay tried to do on the right flank, but he seemed isolated at times and never fully involved. Still, a bright debut in my opinion, though he was appropriately subbed off in the second half.
Gyasi Zardes (ST) - 6 - I like him better as a winger and I always will, he's not a natural close range finisher as proven by the early header. But speed kills, and he does get himself into good positions more often than not.
Jozy Altidore (ST) - 7 - As frustrating as Jozy can be, he often makes tough finishes look easy. A goal and an assist against a compact team could be a good sign for the rest of the year.
Steve Birnbaum (SUB) - 8 - There's not a player who improved their stock more today than Steve Birnbaum. I was surprised when he didn't start, and was far more surprised to see him on the scoresheet twice. If he gets another shot against Canada we'll focus on the defensive side, but right now I'd have him back in camp in two months to face Guatemala.
Darlington Nagbe (SUB) - 7 - This man is a damned menace and I don't think it matters where he plays in the attacking midfield. The US has desperately needed a right winger opposite Fabian Johnson and right now, I'd be willing to give Nagbe that shot. He was all over the field and helped spring the play that led to the winning set piece.
Tony Tchani (SUB) - N/A - I didn't get to see enough of Tchani so he gets no grade from me. That being said, he and Perry Kitchen have a great opportunity to claim the Kyle Beckerman role next to Bradley.
Jerome Kiesewetter (SUB) - 6.5 - I will never complain about where the US gets all these speedsters from, but that was a really solid debut for the Olympic hopeful. He had an immediate impact on the right flank, which seemed to free up Nagbe to just cause more trouble. Drew the foul that led to the winning goal, and even if he might have gone down a little easily, he was surely fouled.
Jordan Morris (SUB) - N/A - No grade for Morris but he did get himself involved inside the box. If Klinsmann is looking for a partner to play next to Jozy, it should be Morris over Zardes every day of the week.