USA-Serbia: Few answers after frustrating start

The USA opened Bruce Arena's second tenure as national team coach as it opened the first, with a 0-0 tie. There was certainly a lot more than attention to Sunday's 0-0 tie against a team of mostly uncapped Serbian players than the scoreless draw with Australia in 1998.

There were more questions than answers coming out of Sunday's draw, not that it mattered Arena afterwards.

"I'll be honest with you, if we won 5-0 today or lost 5-0, I'm not sure it would change our world for March," he said. "These games are important, especially for our domestic players, but the games that are going to count are in March."

1. New-look attack breaks down.

The USA started well, but once the young Serbian team, led by playmaker Aleksandar Palocevic, found its rhythm after the first quarter of an hour, the USA struggled to mount consistent pressure and take advantage of its chances.

"We could be better with our chances," said Arena. "I think we could have been a little bit cleaner in final third of the field, getting the final shot or being a little bit cleaner with our passing and combination there."

Besides giving starts to a host of new players -- only Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Jozy Altidore started in the November qualifiers against Mexico and Costa Rica -- Arena introduced a lineup change, adopting a 4-2-3-1 in which the attack mostly played through Darlington Nagbe and Sacha Kljestan but often left Altidore (celebrating his 100th cap) isolated.

For much of 2016, the USA played with two attackers -- Clint Dempsey and Bobby Wood, then Altidore and Wood -- in a 4-4-2 or (infamously against Mexico in Columbus) 3-5-2 formation. Wood isn't a natural playmaker, but he often created havoc for defenses with his play in open spaces.

Since taking over for Jurgen Klinsmann, Arena has talked about finding a better passer in midfield who could help dictate better control of a match's tempo. If he doesn't take Bradley or Jones out of their roles as dual central midfielders, Arena's only option, it appears, is to drop a second forward if he wants to add a playmaking midfielder like Kljestan played against Serbia.

2. Outside backs remain a question mark.

No positions befuddled Klinsmann more than right back and left back. More often than not, Fabian Johnson, when healthy, started at one of the outside back positions though he has played in midfield at Borussia Moenchengladbach in recent years.

Arena experimented with Graham Zusi at right back and gave Greg Garza his first start for the national team at left in 19 months. Neither stamped their marks on the game offensively, though Arena was pleased with how they played.

"Graham was a little bit more aggressive getting into the final third of the field," he said. "Greg was solid. Greg is coming back from a year and a half, two years of injuries. This is probably his first competitive game in a while. I thought he did really well."

Arena praised the play of Jorge Villafana, who debuted as a late sub at left back and could start on Friday against Jamaica.

3. Pressure mounts for Jamaica game.

Arena said Jones -- who'll be suspended for the Honduras qualifier on March 24 -- and Kljestan -- whose wife is expecting a child -- will return to their MLS clubs, which will create two openings for Friday's game.

Arena could go back to a 4-4-2 against Jamaica, starting Jordan Morris (or Juan Agudelo) up front with Altidore in place of Kljestan. Jones' replacement will likely be Sebastian Lletget, who made his international debut against Serbia and also earned praise from Arena.

The pressure will certainly be on Arena's group of MLS players -- all but Villafana are domestic-based -- in Chattanooga as he'll then throw them in with the mix with European- and Mexican-based players from which he'll pick for the March qualifiers.

The good news on the international front is that Paul Arriola is playing the best soccer of his career at Tijuana, Emerson Hyndman is off to a great start at Rangers -- and Johnson returned to action with 'Gladbach after missing most of winter training.
15 comments about "USA-Serbia: Few answers after frustrating start".
  1. Wooden Ships, January 30, 2017 at 8:09 a.m.

    Maybe, Coach will surprise, against Jamaica and in March. I say surprise because for a few years now we have gone with MB as our Captain and JJ and JA, up the spine. Again, former players, coaches and fans have various opinions, that's good. Are these three really better than what is available? Its mentioned in the article that Wood isn't a playmaker, of course not, but he is faster, quicker and a 90 minute handful for defenders. Move on and maybe we can play the way we had hoped when JK altered our expectations and then went the safe way.

  2. Joe Linzner, January 30, 2017 at 9:25 a.m.

    more of the same old same old and expecting a different result... Altidore still has feet of clay!

  3. Miguel Dedo, January 30, 2017 at 9:50 a.m.

    The players all looked comfortable in their positions, that was never the case with JK in charge. And, BA was relaxed. It was an enjoyable outing.
    That is as good as we are, enjoy it.

  4. Bret Newman, January 30, 2017 at 11:39 a.m.

    MB sucked again! I kept seeing him make sloppy passes, and some getting intercepted. He needs to be benched. I was pleased with what little I saw of Benny Feilhaber.

  5. Delroy Wallace, January 30, 2017 at 12:10 p.m.

    Expect a miracle with Bruce Arena at the helm. Really? The players are sub standard. Simply not good players.

  6. j bapper, January 30, 2017 at 12:15 p.m.

    Even though this was a January friendly against a 3rd string Serbian team, I thought there were a few positives. Nagbe was excellent and always trying to push the play. I also thought Lletget and Birnbaum were pretty good and Fielhaber was creative in a short cameo. The outside backs Zusi and Garza were poor and not the answer to our outside back problem. Jones, Altidore and Bradley all looked slow and rusty.

  7. John Soares, January 30, 2017 at 12:45 p.m.

    It wasn't "exciting" but it was solid. Marshall was solid. Zusi was caught "off guard" a couple of times, to be expected... not his normal position.
    Sadly, offense was not able to put much together until the last twenty minutes. But there was no panic and no major mistakes. We should stick to rating/discussing the game we saw and the players on the field. Not what could/should have been. Not their best team...not ours either. It is January, all MLS players that are not even in pre-season. It will get better!

  8. Ric Fonseca, January 30, 2017 at 1:18 p.m.

    John, well said! It is really befuddling - at times - to read the coulda-woulda-shoulda comments above, and though BA is relishing his return to the MNT (heck, who wouldn't) he does recognize the need to now start working in earnest and get the quality players needed out there. I do, however, cringe reading about the 4-2-3-1 line up, it pure and simple, stinks to high heaven!!! In sum, I am more satisfied in seeing to it that the players begin to see what's at stake here, work their rear ends off, and for us to look for the best our team can offer! PLAY ON!!!

  9. Kent James, January 30, 2017 at 2:37 p.m.

    Not a great game either entertainment-wise, in terms of result, or in terms of learning much. The field seemed a bit rough; Zusi did okay defensively (and he wasn't beaten for speed) but he's not a natural outside back (and I don't think he has the skills to be one). We were fortunate that Garza's foul was given outside the box, because it was clearly in, and should've been a PK. Bradley had some nice long passes, but having him drop back to the back line is not particularly helpful. Feilhaber deserves more time. Jozy had some nice passes form his lone striker position (Jones' shot, e.g.). CB's did fine, but we have 8 people who can play that position as well. I think we need to try MB as the lone defensive CMF, and let someone (who has speed and willingeness to run off the ball and take on attackers, like Wood or Morris) play up top with Jozy, and go back to 4-4-2.

  10. Allan Lindh, January 30, 2017 at 3:57 p.m.

    See Michael Bradley's thoughtful and measured statement on Trump. He really is the Captain. while he will never be W graceful player, or consistent passer, day in day out he is the US's most consistent player -- stop criticizing him and face up to the fact that without his strong intelligent presence in midfield, we'd be a joke.

  11. John Soares, January 30, 2017 at 6:16 p.m.


  12. Tim Gibson, January 31, 2017 at 10:17 a.m.

    I'm sorry, but I totally disagree with Michael Bradley's stance on the drama playing out in D.C. now. "IF" his team was a shoe-in for the Semi's then he can talk all he wants & attempt to be a celebrity but his reality show MUST be clearly tuned-in to 1 channel only = QUALIFY! As of right now, his team sucks & is on the brink of missing the boat. Additionally, w/o him even adding to this political drama. Seriously, %100 of our CONCACAF foes already have enuff locker room chalkboard incentives & we can't risk him OR any other member of our side adding to it. Focus on Job #1 = QUALIFY....GO USA!!

  13. M Lamb, January 31, 2017 at 11:05 a.m.

    I think this game was much more telling than BA would like to admit. If we can't line up talent-for-talent with a third-string side from Serbia at a home game, control the game for long stretches, and create multiple scoring chances, what chance do we have in the Hex much less the World Cup? Yes, the result perhaps was not important, but the level of play by the MNT was so ordinary, it makes me quite sad.

  14. mary stock, January 31, 2017 at 10:41 p.m.

    I ditto M. Lamb. He saw the same game I did. A lower level than we are accustomed to see from the USMNT. One embarrassing example: There were good chances for 2 - 3 easy goals lost when NO ONE answered crosses. One by Jermaine. He killed himself fighting to get that cross. THEN, the camera pans to the other end of the goal. NO ONE. Just green grass growing. The cameraman was excellent. The director stayed on that view longer than usual. Over the grass. It got more embarrassing the longer the camera lingered there. And that whole area was completely bare of opponents! What a chance! But NO ONE even set out running when they saw Jermaine was going to cross. These are 8th-grader mistakes.///Then I got contrasting visions of Pulisic and Altidore's cross and fabulous goal--at the AT&T game, I believe. What a difference!! So well timed, by both of them. Fabulous to see. The possibility of not even getting to WC2018 crossed my mind more than once when I saw the stuff in the Serbia game. stuff.

  15. mary stock, January 31, 2017 at 10:43 p.m.

    P.S. That was the T&T game, as you all will know.

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