Matchday one was a mixed bag for the Arena era with the USMNT. And that is just fine.
There was very little to not get excited for about Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium. With the USMNT beginning their 2017 campaign and coach Bruce Arena and several new old faces back in the fold it seemed like the United States was destined for a win over Serbia. But after a 0-0 draw against the European side it seems as if some of that luster was lost.
The problem with any USMNT match is that they always seem to fall under the win or else mentality. Every game is a proving ground for the side and especially given that this was Arena’s return match it also seemed from some as if he was predestined to win.
After all the Serbia side did not feature their top players (no Alexander Kolarov, Nemanja Matic, or Alexander Mitrovic among many others) and was for the most part made up of players from their domestic league. So the feeling was that in a matchup between the top players of Serbia (who, mind you also did not feature many players from Partizan Belgrade or Red Star, the two best sides in the Balkan country) and Major League Soccer that the USMNT had an advantage. But judging by Sunday’s affair that was not the case.
Now there may be some that look at that and say well then we sucked. Not necessarily. The first thing one has to remember about matches in January is that they are nothing more than glorified training exercises. These matches do not fall under the FIFA calendar so thus club teams (read: Europe) are not under any obligation to release their players. Considering that many of the MLS players have not played since October and that the Serbian players have been off since December rust should be expected.
Watching Sunday’s match was very much like watching a spring training baseball game in March. So if we look at this match from the lens of being a training match and not some grand spectacle then there are some things one draw from Arena’s first match. The first is the structure. As opposed to the Klinsmann era where things seemed to be very fluid, Arena seemed to be going back the USMNT’s bread and butter on Sunday. There was much better midfield progression from a defensive to attacking stance and a bit better with their passing.
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For the first time in about six years Michael Bradley seemed comfortable moving the USMNT attack. His work in concert with Sacha Kjlestan created some of the best chances for Jozy Altidore and Darlington Nagbe. Players seemed to be in a structure that felt comfortable to them that played to their strengths. Whether that leads to stagnation down the road is another question for another time. But for the first time in awhile there was a certain level of calm on the pitch.
That isn’t to say that there weren’t some interesting lineup decisions. Of course the use of Graham Zusi as a right-back is the first and most glaring example of this. The Sporting Kansas City winger looked lost during the first few minutes of the match, getting easily beaten by his Serbian counter-part. At 30 and after having multiple hamstring injuries Zusi does not have the speed that he once had and it showed on Sunday. Having to cover the defensive half of the pitch meant that he really could not assist on set pieces and crosses, situations that Zusi normally thrives in. But again this is January camp and it is expected that coaches will experiment with these things.
In general there are still many questions on defense. Greg Garza still appears to be getting back into form after sustaining a devastating hip injury last year, making some good clears in the first half but nearly giving up a penalty. Chad Marshall and Steve Birnbaum chemistry was also missing at center-back with the two often getting their signals mixed up. Again, this is January but with the back four being one of Arena’s biggest projects there are certainly things to look at.
Although the result is most likely not what U.S Soccer wanted for Arena’s return in the end it wasn’t necessarily a bad result. The question is now if the club can grow from this result and learn from it. There isn’t much time between now and their first World Cup qualifier against Honduras in March. Arena is going to have to take the positives and negatives from this match and apply these lessons immediately ahead of their friendly against Jamaica on Friday.