CARSON, Calif. — This year's January training camp was supposed to be about new faces for the U.S. national team, and though veterans Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore were still two of the best U.S. players in Sunday's 3-2 victory against Iceland, there were several national team novices who stepped up when given the opportunity.
Four players made their national team debuts Sunday, but it wasn't just the likes of Kellyn Acosta and Tony Tchani who showed well in their first U.S. match. Others who have had a handful of previous looks stepped up with strong showings as well — players like Lee Nguyen and Steve Birnbaum.
The first U.S. national team match of 2016 had plenty of bright spots, but it also had some of the issues you would expect from a January friendly. There were defensive breakdowns, at times a lack of sharpness, and the nerves that come from national team debutantes. All that said, Sunday's victory was still a positive first step for a national team searching for some new blood, and hoping to erase the memories of a disappointing 2015.
Here were some of the key takeaways from Sunday's victory:
Birnbaum wasn't expecting Jurgen Klinsmann to call him to join the January national team camp this winter. It was unexpected not because he wasn't confident in his ability, but because he was coming off a bit of a disappointing second season as a pro. Held back by injuries at the start of the year, and caught in a player rotation that saw him come in and out of the lineup with D.C. United, Birnbaum navigated through a 2015 that left him frustrated at times.
Despite all that, Birnbaum still managed to earn a call. He was ready for it when it came, having kept in shape during the offseason. That allowed him to hit the ground running in camp and helped him impress in Sunday's win by delivering an assist and scoring the game-winning goal with a 90th-minute header.
"It was a tough year for me, mentally, physically, really in every way," Birnbaum told Goal USA. "I played every position along the back line because of injuries, and we had a bit of a playing rotation too, and it was difficult. I'm not going to say it was easy. In the end, all that helped me get stronger mentally, and made me work on my mentality."
"I'm just happy to be called back in and happy to get another cap with the (national) team," Birnbaum said. "I'm just happy that we won the game, but it was also great because I had a bunch of family and friends here so it was cool to be able to do that in front of my hometown, basically."
Birnbaum came into Sunday's match as a halftime substitute, and his appearance got off to a shaky start when the U.S. defense gave up a goal to Iceland to fall behind, 2-1, just three minutes into the second half. Birnbaum appeared to lay back a bit too much on Iceland goal-scorer Aron Sigurdarson.
Rather than let that early mistake lead to a shaky showing, Birnbaum settled down and had a strong outing, helping set up a Michael Orozco equalizer with a headed pass, then heading home the winning goal in the 90th minute.
Birnbaum credited his experience in last year's January camp, which saw him impress in his first appearances for the U.S., for helping him have the right mindset when called back in this year.
"I learned to have confidence in myself, and not second-guess myself or overthink things," Birnbaum said. "When I came in this year I just wanted to make sure I made the most of the opportunity."
"He came in very determined in this camp," Klinsmann said of Birnbaum. "He said, 'I'm ready. I've worked a lot over Christmas, New Year's, over the winter period. Whenever you need me.'"
Altidore was active Sunday, scoring a goal, setting up another and moving well as the leader of the U.S. attack.
If Altidore appeared a bit smaller in Sunday's victory against Iceland, it wasn't because his U.S. uniform is cut any differently — it probably had more to do with the more than 10 pounds he lost after a concerted effort to get leaner.
The forward has, at times, resembled an NFL player more than a soccer player with his muscle-bound frame often overpowering opponents, but all that extra muscle has also meant more muscle-related injuries, which have cost him in some important moments, particularly around tournaments.
Among the past tournaments Altidore has seen cut short or hampered by injuries: the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup, the 2014 World Cup and the 2015 Gold Cup.
On Sunday, the 26-year-old looked visibly leaner, and quicker, which could bode well for a big year for the Toronto FC striker.
"I felt good. I just feel lighter on my feet," Altidore said. "For me, the biggest thing is my health. I don't want to get injured this year. I want to keep the injuries at the minimum. I feel like, if I could stay healthy, I could have a strong season."
"I lost some weight, changed my diet. I lost more than 10 pounds," he continued. "I'm trying to lose a little more. Just trying to stay light, trying to stay lean and I hope I can keep off the injury table."
"I'm a naturally muscular guy, so I'm trying to take some of the muscle down and be a bit leaner," Altidore said. "Hopefully, I can have less muscle tears. Obviously, stretching and yoga and all of those types of things, but I just don't want to get injured. I just don't want that to happen. You always did it, but when injuries come, you have to change something. You just try and dig deeper and try and change a lot of things, like sleep and diet even more so than before, so hopefully it pays off."
Acosta may not have a ton of experience playing at left back, but he still managed to impress in that role, even though he also had to play it carrying the nerves that come with making a senior national team debut.
Acosta overcame some early jitters to turn in a strong showing against Iceland. His passing was off the mark in the first half but improved considerably in the second half. Defensively, Acosta met every challenge Iceland threw his way.
"If you look at that very young left back, Kellyn Acosta, I think after he kind of settled his nerves after 10-15 minutes, he really played like he belonged in this team. It was really, really fun to watch," Klinsmann said. "He impressed in training, was very calm. He was very mature for his age, and that was his opportunity then.
"I saw that he was kind of keeping his nerves. There was no problem, took him a few minutes, but he was rewarded for these three weeks of really good work."
"I think I was a little timid at first. I think I was too afraid to make a mistake," Acosta said. "I think that was kind of my downfall, but as the second half got going I was more committed to getting forward and helping my team any way possible.
"I've just shown that I'm just confident and ready to go. Whatever is thrown at me, I'm ready to just take it, but I think I've been working hard, trying to prove that I belong here, and I think that's paid off for me."
For as far back as Nguyen goes as a U.S. national team prospect (all the way back to the 2007 Copa America), it was surprising to realize that Sunday's start against Iceland was his first with the U.S. national team. The New England Revolution playmaker has only managed to scrape together some cameo appearances under U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, and almost always found a way to make something happen in those chances.
Klinsmann finally gave Nguyen the platform to showcase what he could do as a starter and Nguyen did well, flashing the creativity, vision and quickness that has made him one of the best midfielders in MLS. Deployed on the left wing in what felt at times like a 4-1-3-2 formation, Nguyen combined well with Michael Bradley and saw plenty of the ball, showing up his deft touch and unique attacking qualities.
Nguyen earned the start after impressing Klinsmann with how fit and sharp he was from the beginning of training camp.
"Lee came a little bit different to last year. He was really prepared for this camp," Klinsmann said. "From day one on, he set the tone. He says, 'OK, I was here last year, didn't make that impression that I wanted to make, so I better make it right now.' So he was unquestionable in the starting lineup after a week already for us."
"After three weeks of training and hard work, definitely one of the winners of this period right now," Klinsmann added.
Nguyen did play his more familiar central midfielder role in the second half against Iceland, and while some of his passes didn't connect, his ideas were promising and his relationship with fellow midfielders Bradley and Darlington Nagbe were encouraging.
Though they only played the final 15 minutes of Sunday's match, U.S. Under-23 forwards Jordan Morris and Jerome Kiesewetter were a handful for Iceland's defense. They helped create chances throughout their stint on the field, troubling the visitors with their speed and shiftiness.
"Jordan and Jerome, for me, are two studs," Altidore said of the duo. "Two studs that we hope can take us, along with Lee and some other guys, to the next level. They have all of the ability."
Kiesewetter was particularly effective playing on the right wing, where he helped generate more service in his 15 minutes than the U.S. received from that side of the field through the first 75 minutes. Morris was his usual active self at forward, coming close with some looks, but failing to find the net.
Morris and Kiesewetter join Acosta as the only players who played on Sunday that are also eligible for the U.S. Under-23 team, which will face Colombia in a two-legged Olympic qualifying playoff in March. Klinsmann could give some more of the U-23s in camp a chance to play in Friday's friendly against Canada.