Steve Birnbaum header lifts USMNT over Iceland

BY Kyle McCarthy • January 31, 2016

There were no grand statements or sweeping improvements in the first match of this busy year, but United States defender Steven Birnbaum sparked celebrations nevertheless. Birnbaum nodded home his first international goal in the 90th minute to lift the Americans to a 3-2 victory over Iceland on Sunday afternoon.

The late winner applied a gloss to a ragged and open affair. Former Columbus Crew SC winger Kristinn Steindorsson opened the scoring for Iceland with a deflected effort inside the opening quarter of an hour. Jozy Altidore responded by rounding off a neat American sequence after 20 minutes. Iceland took the lead again through Aron Sigurdarson's curling effort three minutes after halftime, but Michael Orozco prodded home Birnbaum's knockdown just before the hour to restore parity. Birnbaum settled matters at the death to give the Americans a winning start to their 2016 obligations.

U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann must expect significant improvement ahead of the World Cup qualifiers against Guatemala in March and the Copa America Centenario in June, but he can take heart in the way his makeshift side persisted to secure victory despite evident defensive failings. The onus now falls upon this group to make further strides ahead of the friendly against Canada on Friday (live, 10:15p.m. ET, FS1, FOX Sports GO).

Klinsmann handed Kellyn Acosta and Ethan Finlay their full debuts and provided Luis Robles and Lee Nguyen with their chances to impress. The quartet played a part in a U.S. side expected to dominate in possession and ward against Iceland's ability to pounce on errors and push forward on the counterattack.

The opening stages provided plenty of possession, but they also underscored the perils of the dynamic. For all of its dominion on the ball, the Americans exposed their vulnerabilities at the back. It took Iceland just 13 minutes to punish them for imprecise work in defense and wrest control over the proceedings.

Most of the profit arrived when Sigurdarson grasped advantage of the space allotted by Acosta. His initial cross prompted a weak clearing header from Matt Besler and static defending from the unintended knockdown. Steindorsson reacted while others stood still and watched his effort bank off Orozco and trickle past the stranded Robles.

The goal arrived firmly against the run of play as the Americans controlled the ball and used it effectively enough. Zardes frittered away good work by Nguyen when he headed off the ground and over the bar from close range. The use of space -- particularly with incisive movement in front of the Iceland back four -- foretold the eventual equalizer after 20 minutes.

Jermaine Jones instigated the move by pointing out the space in front of him and then playing toward Zardes in front of goal. Zardes dropped the ball quickly into Bradley's run through. Bradley clipped through the line for Altidore to restore parity with his 32nd international goal.

The resulting balance reflected the Americans' superiority on the ball and underscored the peril they faced when conceding it. Bradley dictated terms in possession, while Altidore threw himself about earnestly and nearly won a penalty on the stroke of halftime. The decision to wave away those claims reverberated early in the second half after more slipshod defending paved the way for a well-taken second goal for the visitors.

All of the trouble started with another lapse in concentration. Iceland won a free kick and played it quickly as the Americans quibbled about the decision. Sigurdarson maneuvered through Orozco's challenge on the right and received the benefit of the space in behind him. He made the best possible use of it by slicing infield and sweeping into the far corner to restore the Icelandic lead.

Orozco made amends for his role by procuring the equalizer just before the hour. Iceland failed to cope with the initial delivery from a corner kick. Altidore latched onto the ball at the back post and played back into the scrum. Birnbaum rose highest to nod down for Orozco to prod home from close range.

The goal provided a deserved equalizer on the balance and set up an expansive final half-hour. Neither side managed the space well as the shapes stretched from end to end. Eidur Gudjohnsen nearly snatched a third with an effort from distance, while Jordan Morris -- inserted with likely Olympic strike partner Jerome Kiesewetter with a quarter of an hour to play -- slid just wide from close range.

All of those efforts produced a U.S. winner just before full time. Bradley floated a free kick toward the far post invitingly. Birnbaum climbed to meet it and smashed it into the back of the net to start this hectic year with a victory.

"It’s the first game of the year -- we’re trying to get our legs under us still," Altidore was quoted as saying after the win. "We’re working really hard in training and it’s nice to play against a real opponent and gets a few minutes."

"We have to get fitter, but that’s normal this time of the year," he added. "We just need to be a little bit sharper. Sometimes that final pass wasn’t there, that first touch wasn’t there, but it will come in due time."