Juergen Klinsmann said the goal of this winter’s U.S. Soccer training camp was to give everybody a head start heading into what figures to be a busy year, beginning next month with a pair of World Cup qualifiers for the senior team and an Olympic qualifying playoff for the U-23 team.
“The benefit, really, of this camp comes at the end of March,” the coach said.
But there was also some good that came out of Friday’s final camp activity, a 1-0 win over Canada at the StubHub Center.
Jozy Altidore won it the 89th minute, heading home a perfect cross at the far post from Ethan Finlay, who had entered the game just seconds earlier. It was the second goal in as many games for Altidore, who reported to camp both early and fit, the result of a new training program he hopes will solve his problem with repeated hamstring strains.
The win, combined with Sunday’s exhibition victory over Iceland, will give both American teams a small push of momentum into the games that count next month. Just as important, though, was the fact the three-week camp gave Klinsmann a chance to audition some of the players who are already pushing for a spot on the national team.
“Obviously we need to know more about the youngsters coming through then we know about the players that have already played five, six, seven, eight years,” he said.
So Klinsmann gave national team debuts to six players in the two games, among them 20-year-old defender Kellyn Acosta, who started both friendlies and impressed, and San Jose Earthquakes keeper David Bingham, who blanked Canada in his debut.
Klinsmann also got a long look at 21-year-old forward Jordan Morris, gave midfielder Jermaine Jones another try at center back, appears to have found a new defender in Steve Birnbaum and said he liked what he saw in two starts by forward Lee Nguyen and a cameo from debutant Brandon Vincent, a second-half substitute Friday.
More difficult to find Friday was a goal, something the U.S. hadn’t managed against Canada in nearly three games and more than 295 minutes, dating to the 2011 Gold Cup.
But the U.S. didn’t lack for scoring opportunities – most of which involved Altidore. The Americans took 17 shots, eight on target. But before the goal the most dangerous chance came in the 83rd minute when Altidore chipped a ball over the head of Canadian keeper Maxime Crepeau, who had come well off his line.
The shot was too high, though, allowing Crepeau to back pedal and bat the ball away from both the net and American forward Jerome Kiesewetter.
Altidore was frustrated in the first half when a sliding right-footed shot beat the keeper but hit the post.
Bingham, meanwhile, had a relatively quite night, facing just four shots, none of them on goal.
“It was one of those games where we felt we were always there, on the doorstep,” Altidore said. “That finish shot still wasn’t there. The last pass, the last cross.”
Of his new fitness regime, which includes a diet that has left him leaner and sleep habits that have him more rested, Altidore said the results have been noticeable.
“I feel better, I feel lighter,” he said. “I’m fitter. And hopefully I can keep getting fit.
“It’s still preseason, we’re still getting our bodies right. That’s always something you’ve got to work on as a player.”
Yet for all of Klinsmann’s emphasis on youth, the most impressive performer in camp was a relatively old hand the coach was already familiar with.
At 26, Altidore is a two-time World Cup veteran and he played like it this week, scoring a pair of goals to give him 33 for his national team career, one behind Eric Wynalda for third on the all-time scoring list. But like everyone else in camp, Altidore said he spent the last three weeks trying to get better.
“This is why we have this camp, to get sharp,” he said. “I didn’t think we were sharp enough in front of the goal, myself included. We’ve got to work on that obviously.
“To finish the game and win the game, I thought we deserved to win. We were the better team throughout. And ending camp on a high note is good.”