By Ridge Mahoney
In the first friendly of 2017 and the return of head coach Bruce Arena, the Americans didn’t lose and didn’t give up a goal.
That may not be much to draw from a game against a Serbian "B: team but after surrendering six goals in losses to Mexico and Costa Rica that prompted the dismissal of Jurgen Klinsmann, encouraging performances by Darlington Nagbe and Sebastian Lletget and a decent defensive showing offer a bit of promise for brighter days ahead.
The message going forward? Just qualify, baby.
More clues will be gleaned from the Jamaica friendly in Chattanooga on Friday. Two starters against Serbia have left the squad and four field players didn’t play, so the process of evaluation will continue.
Despite the clamor from some quarters for Nagbe to play as a No. 10, Nagbe on the left side makes sense; as he showed twice against Serbia, cutting inside to get a better angle for a right-footed shot is a favorite piece of his game. No team likes to defend against a skillful attacker who likes to run at opponents with the ball and that’s a facet of attacking play the U.S. has struggled to produce at times from midfield.
The emergence of DeAndre Yedlin in recent years is a vivid reminder how much a flank attack at pace can open up a back line. In his days as a left back as well as at left mid, DaMarcus Beasley scorched many an opponent.
But the left side of midfield is also where Christian Pulisic plays, so unless Arena believes moving him to the right side is a good option it will be hard to get both of Nagbe and Pulisic on the field without some manner of formation tweak. Nagbe must also improve his ability to bend balls behind the back line to get regular time on the wing. Nagbe scored his first U.S. goal last May in a pre-Copa America Centenario against Ecuador after both he and Pulisic entered the match as substitutes.
Arena has concerns about the right flank. On Sunday, Alejandro Bedoya played another quiet game, fading perhaps because of fatigue after a decent start, and it’s an open question of how his move to MLS will affect his national team performance in the long term. He was very much a go-to guy for Klinsmann.
If Arena can find a reliable left back among Beasley, Greg Garza, or Jorge Villafana, he can revisit the option of using Fabian Johnson at right mid. Against Serbia, Garza committed a clumsy foul in the corner of the box that should have yielded a penalty kick, and on a couple of occasions he smartly overlapped Nagbe, whose passes missed him.
As Arena stated, Garza came into camp without a regular dose of competitive action for a year and a half. Debilitating hip problems shut him down in 2015 and the arrival of former Mexican national team coach Miguel Herrera a few months later at Club Tijuana has been great for Xolos but not for Garza. His loan move to Atlanta is an ideal path to establishing a regular place in the U.S. player pool.
The Honduras qualifier in March provides another test of what to do without the suspended Jermaine Jones. Lletget replaced Jones at halftime and jumped right into the flow to unhinge the Serbian defense. He doesn’t play the same game as the roaming, marauding Jones, and neither does Dax McCarty, who didn’t get on the field against Serbia but if he gets some time against Jamaica Friday has to be thrown into the list of candidates.
As a late-game lockdown option, McCarty could find a place on a game-day roster during the Hexagonal or the Gold Cup. Not until the Hex resumes can we know how European-based central mids such as Emerson Hyndman, Perry Kitchen and Danny Williams may fare under Arena.
The absence of Jones -- and Sacha Kljestan, whose wife is due with their second child -- for the Jamaica game offers Arena the option of playing a different variation of a 4-2-3-1, one in which the central player in the line of three is a second forward, such as Juan Agudelo. With Altidore up top, when the qualifiers resume Bobby Wood could slide into that spot underneath him. But does that freeze out Jordan Morris or force him into a wide role?
During the reign of Klinsmann, Wood occasionally played out wide and his partnership with Altidore is a work-in-progress. But it’s hard to see Arena leaving Wood out of the lineup in games the U.S. has to win. Wood is active, aggressive, a solid finisher who can also hit a nice pass. He's a royal pain in the butt who fights and scraps for 90 minutes.
Arena could still get a playmaker, i.e., Benny Feilhaber, on the field by pairing him with either Lletget or McCarty as the central midfield pair. And Lletget could also play tilted to the right; he played right mid during most of Arena’s tenure with the Galaxy. Yedlin’s eagerness to bomb forward offers a right-sided mid plenty of spaces and angles to utilize in the channel.
The desperation of needing to win the Honduras game might inject a measure of caution, even though it is at home. Like most of the good teams in Concacaf, Honduras can punish teams ruthlessly on the counterattack. The game in San Jose will be the first away Hexagonal match for Honduras, the only team to start with two home games. It rebounded to beat Trinidad & Tobago, 3-1, after losing at home to Panama, 1-0.
Arena knows well the team’s familiarity with the 4-4-2 formation, which is the most natural method to play Wood and Altidore together. With two central midfielders unavailable for the Jamaica friendly, Arena could test out the 4-4-2 at least for part of the Jamaica game just to reinforce its attributes and dynamics.
As there always are in friendlies, the Jamaica game is riddled by mitigating circumstances. It is being played on artificial turf in a facility used by the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga football and soccer teams as well as Chattanooga FC of the NPSL. The opponent, Jamaica, is regrouping after falling out of World Cup qualifying at the semifinal stage and has brought back former midfield star Theodore Whitmore for his second stint as head coach. After a long camp, the U.S. players will want to play well but also get back to their clubs as fit and healthy as possible. (I’m sure all those MLS coaches with players in Chattanooga are thrilled they are playing a robust foe on turf in early February.)
Despite all the hype and hoopla about Arena taking over for Klinsmann, Serbia in January is a not much more than a starting point. Yet the way back is underway and with expectations minimized -- just qualify, baby -- the players can devote themselves to doing just that, and not worry about learning a new position or wondering which formation tweak is around the corner. The road forward is bumpy and pitted by obstacles, but it is straight.