Everyone will say, "it's just a friendly," or "Iceland and Canada aren't quality enough opponents," but the USMNT gave us some hope in those two friendlies to start 2016. Both of the above sentiments are true on the surface, but if you can move past the opponent quality and non-meaningful games, you see that the US are steadily improving. There are still things to be done, and Jurgen Klinsmann still shouldn't be the coach leading the Americans into the 2018 World Cup, but there was clear progress shown.
Jozy Altidore perhaps has seen the biggest rise in these last two friendlies, scoring two goals in two games and looking dangerous throughout. As a center forward, you are considered to have played a good match when you are both consistently making threatening runs at the defense and getting involved in possession. Altidore has had his struggles at each of those in the past, but he did both to perfection Friday night.
He finished with an impressive eight shots, three of which were on target, and of course headed Ethan Finlay's cross in the 89th-minute past Canada goalkeeper Maxim Crépeau to secure a US win. Altidore was a big presence in the box for the entirety of the game, drawing considerable attention from the Canadian defenders and therefore opening up space for teammates, most notably fellow striker Jordan Morris.
Hold-up play has never been his forte, but against Canada, Altidore excelled at it. He was effectively linking up with Morris, something you need from forwards in a 4-4-2, and sat deep enough to both help in possession and drag defenders from their place in the backline, giving Morris and others space to make pressing runs. Altidore spent plenty of time in zone 14, or "the hole," in between central midfield and central defense. Clearly, Canada's lack of a good defensive midfielder (Atiba Hutchinson won't work) was huge for the US, as it gave Altidore the space to work in a very threatening attacking position.
Not only was he holding up play in the hole, but he also acted like a playmaker a couple times and sent balls into the box. Here is a perfect example of that:
SO CLOSE. Jordan Morris tries to float it over the keeper but the touch was too heavy. pic.twitter.com/6tD7otLBgb— Sounder At Heart (@sounderatheart) February 6, 2016
Altidore reminded many of Mauro Diaz in that instance. The touch he showed on that pass was superb, and it perfectly illustrated the link-up play between the two strikers. If he continues to play like he did in LA, US fans should be excited.
But, given his history, this success may not last. Once competitive games start to come up, he has shown a tendency to drop off and not work as hard. While that still could very well happen once the MLS season begins in early March, Altidore played well enough to solidify himself as the top striker in the national team pool. Toronto FC fans should definitely be happy.
Altidore wasn't the only positive. His success could go hand-in-hand with that of young players who got their first chance with the national team this January. Brandon Vincent, Jerome Kiesewetter, Jordan Morris and Wil Trapp are some those U-23 age players who are certainly on Klinsmann's radar for the future, and they looked promising against Canada.
There are others as well, with Darlington Nagbe, Matt Miazga, Steve Birnbaum and Gyasi Zardes all looking like they could fill up a starting XI come 2018. Goalkeeper David Bingham, of the San Jose Earthquakes, looked calm and confident as he kept a clean sheet in his first international cap.
All of these players were part of an overall good January camp for Klinsmann. He originally brought in these young players to prepare them for the crucial Olympic qualifying matches for the U-23s, and they all seem to have made great strides in their development, possibly securing their place in future national team squads.
The camp itself reportedly had a different feel to it. Altidore told us as much in an interview with Fox Sports following the match:
"(The camp was) a bit more relaxed at times. You let each player be the driver of their own camp to do what they felt would best prepare them for the season. I thought it was a huge plus."
It was missing multiple mainstays who now seem to be aging out of Klinsmann's plans, such as Clint Dempsey, DaMarcus Beasley and Tim Howard. The influx of younger talent will likely signify an extension to the German manager's career as USMNT coach. It seems to be performing well, which puts more purpose and hopefulness in Klinsmann's tenure.
I have been critical of the manager in the past, but after the previous two friendlies, hope can be seen in the distance. Younger talent is arriving, veteran players are finding their form, and a consistent formation–the flat 4-4-2–has been found. There is still plenty (and I'm talking about PLENTY) of work to do, but there were some noticeable positives for US Soccer.
There hasn't been enough from Klinsmann to take him off his burning hot seat, but there is enough to be confident in him to lead the United States into the March World Cup qualifiers. You really have to be careful about reading too much into friendlies (just look at last June's wins over Germany and the Netherlands), but US fans should like what they currently see with the roster.
Now it's time to execute when we get to the real games.