A new year, a new (but familiar) coach and the same questions in need of answers.
That was the takeaway from the U.S. Men’s National Team’s 0-0 draw in its Sunday friendly against Serbia in sunny San Diego. In fairness, the match was the first in Bruce Arena’s second tenure as national team head coach, and none of the team’s European-based players were available for the match.
Working with the new U.S. coaching staff since mid-January as part of the team’s annual beginning of the year camp, the Americans for much of the match were sluggish, struggling to maintain constant offensive pressure on what was essentially Serbia’s B squad.
On the positive side, several players including Darlington Nagbe, Jordan Morris and Sacha Kljestan and Sebastian Lletget were among the standouts. Nagbe, who was named Man of the Match, used his speed several times throughout the match to provide offensive chances.
Following the match, Kljestan was released by Arena to return home to New Jersey where he and his wife are expecting the birth of their second child, according to NewYorkRedBulls.com. He started and played 77 minutes before being replaced by Benny Feilhaber.
Part of the team’s inability to generate offense on Sunday was the absence of several key parts of the offense, including Bobby Wood and Christian Pulisic, who are playing with their respective teams in the Bundesliga. Wood and Jozy Altidore, who earned his 100th cap, have developed a strong bond up top and have been key cogs in the U.S. offense. How this relationship further develops will be key for the Americans going forward.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Arena going forward is the team’s defense, which during its World Cup qualifying losses to Mexico and Costa Rica in November was leaky. With the likes of John Brooks and Geoff Cameron playing in Europe and not in camp, the head coach tested the idea of playing Graham Zusi at right back. The Sporting Kansas City man was steady on Sunday, but how Arena incorporates the team’s European-based players with those currently in camp remains to be seen.
The other concern for the national team, which seems to get overlooked, is the age of its midfield. Jermaine Jones appears to be a key cog in Arena’s midfield wheel, but at age 37, can Jones provide the United States a strong 90 minutes against younger, faster competition? Michael Bradley, at 29, remains a fixture in the center of the U.S. Starting XI, but Arena must settle on how he wants to play the team captain. Will Bradley serve as the holding midfielder or will be he used to push play?
In addition, the team is also challenged by lack of speed and movement on the wings. DeAndre Yedlin would seem to be a good choice to provide pace on the flanks, but Arena won’t get a look at the current Newcastle United man until March, just days ahead of the resumption of World Cup qualifying.
With the U.S. in need of wins if it hopes to be in Russia next year, Arena has the experience and on-field talent to turn this around. The challenge will be incorporating his domestic and international players into a cohesive unit before it’s too late.