January 31, 2016
By Scott French
BIRNBAUM PLAYS HERO
Defender nods U.S. past Iceland in 2016 opener
LA Soccer News Contributing Editor
CARSON, Calif. -- Steve Birnbaum was something of an afterthought for the U.S. national team to start 2016, but when he took the opportunity that was offered and turned it into something special.
The 25-year-old D.C. United center back, from nearby Irvine, set up fellow Orange Countian Michael Orozco's equalizer and then scored a last-minute winner Sunday as the Yanks twice rallied from deficits to beat Iceland, 3-2, on a cold, windy, intermittently rainy afternoon at StubHub Center.
Jozy Altidore also tallied for the U.S., which looked good on occasion and shaky at other times while playing a mix of veterans and youngsters against a second-choice group from the surprise European Championship qualifiers.
It was a nice finish to the first three weeks of the annual “January” camp, which will conclude with Friday night's StubHub friendly against Canada.
“It's nice that the players got rewarded for a lot of work,” head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said afterward. “Three weeks into preseason, three weeks' training, and they got rewarded with that late goal through Stevie Birnbaum. Overall, effort and spirit, everything, exactly how in training the whole three weeks. Very, very positive, helping each other.
“Obviously, you can see we're not fine-tuned yet. When you start preseason, the biggest issue you have to find in the beginning is finding your first touch, finding the right moves, getting a better understanding for each other. This just takes time, but, overall, I think they worked hard. They kept pushing and pushing. They wanted to win this game.”
Altidore finished off a superb sequence in the 20th minute after Iceland went ahead in the 13th, and Birnbaum's header fed Orozco's header in the 59th after the visitors took the lead again at the start of the second half on a stunning shot by debutant Aron Sigurdarson.
Birnbaum, left unmarked, powerfully nodded home Michael Bradley's corner kick in the 90th minute to give the U.S. the victory.
Birnbaum, who made his international debut during last year's “January” camp and hadn't played for the Yanks since, wasn't on Klinsmann's initial list for this year's gathering and received an invitation among late additions after San Jose's Fatai Alashe and Marc Pelosi pulled out with injuries.
“He came in very determined this camp,” Klinsmann said. “He said, 'I'm ready, I worked a lot at Christmas, New Year's, over the winter period, and whenever you need me [I am ready].' They all have their case, and we always encourage them when you get the opportunity on the field, make the most of it, and he did.”
Klinsmann gave first caps to left back Kellyn Acosta -- one of the highlights for the Yanks -- and right-sided midfielder Ethan Finley in the starting lineup and Tony Tchani and Jerome Kiesewetter midway though the second half. Four Icelandic players joined Sigurarson in their international debuts, all off the bench in the second half: defenders Hjortur Hermannsson and Diego Johannesson, forward Aron Elis Thrandarson and midfielder Aevar Ingi Johannesson.
Acosta, Kiesewetter and second-half substitute Jordan Morris were the only U-23 players to see action for the U.S.
Iceland went ahead after a dozen minutes had passed, with 37-year-old veteran Eidur Gudjohnsen taking advantage of a defensive miscue to set up Steindorrson.
Matt Besler got his head to a cross from the right flank but failed to clear it, and Gudjohnsen bodied him off the ball and played it back toward the top of the box. Steindorsson collected in traffic, and his shot deflected off Orozco and into the middle of the net as goalkeeper Luis Robles leapt toward the left post.
Steindorsson, who played last year with the Columbus Crew, has scored twice in two international appearances, the first in a victory in January 2015 over Canada in Orlando, Fla.
Gyasi Zardes nearly pulled the U.S. even three minutes later, but hid header at the right post at the edge of the 6-yard box, from a Lee Nguyen chip, bounced over the crossbar.
Altidore struck in the 20th minute, completing a superb sequence out of midfield. Jermaine Jones split three defenders with a pass to Zardes, just above the box, and the LA Galaxy forward squared it with one touch to Bradley, splitting two defenders. Bradley played the ball behind Iceland's backline for Altidore, who beat goalkeeper Ogmundur Kristinsson one-on-one.
The goal was Altidore's 32nd for the U.S., two behind Eric Wynalda's total for the third spot on the all-time list.
The U.S. had more and better possession through the first half, benefiting especially from Bradley's play in midfield and Zardes' and Altidore's movement up front, but Iceland's organization made chances difficult to come by.
The teams again traded goals early in the second half. Sigurdarson tallied in the 48th minute following a quick restart as the Americans pleaded for a different call, entering the box from the left and, with halftime substitute Steve Birnbaum trying to stand him up, fired into the far-post netting.
Birnbaum said he could have done better.
“Probably just position my body a little more inside, have him go wide,” he said. “I think [Jermaine Jones] was coming close, but that's on me.”
The edge lasted 11 minutes. A Bradley corner kick from the right was headed away by Birkir Mar Saevarsson, but Altidore collected it at the back of the box and chipped the ball toward the right post. Birnbaum jumped to head it on frame, and Orozco slipped Hermannsson's mark to nod the ball home from the goal line.
Iceland had a chance to pull ahead again in the 69th minute, but Saevarsson fired straight at Robles with a clear shot after racing into the box. The Americans got into Iceland's box several times in the final 15 minutes and came closest to breaking the deadlock on a sequence involving Acosta, Kiesewetter and Morris in the 81st.
Birnbaum scored the winner from about 8 yards.
“They were playing, like, a zone defense. It's easier for attackers to run in and get a head start on the ball,” Birnbaum said. “I kind of knew that Michael was going to float it up there, that I could win it over a guy standing still. So it was easy that way.”