Bruce Arena's second stint as U.S. boss gets off to tepid start in draw vs. Serbia
SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- Bruce Arena began his second stint as U.S. national team manager with a 0-0 friendly draw in San Diego against Serbia on Sunday.
Clear chances were scarce until a late flurry from both sides. U.S. keeper Nick Rimando was forced to make only two saves, though his second was a sharp parry of a shot from Serbia forward Lazar Jovanovic in the second half. Serbian counterpart Filip Manojlovic was forced to make just one save.
Here are three thoughts on the Americans' first match of the year.
1. Tepid fare to start 2017 for the U.S. -- as expected
The hiring of Bruce Arena, combined with the Americans' last-place standing in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, has created a sense of urgency within the U.S. team. For that reason, the hunger for any sign of improvement has been palpable. Placed in that context, the result can be looked on as a disappointment, especially given the vast gulf in experience between the two sides, with Serbia's roster having a grand total of six caps.
But it's also worth remembering it's still preseason for this group of U.S. players, many of whom haven't played a match for more than two months, and the quality of soccer was predictably at the low end of the spectrum.
Which is why there shouldn't be too much panic at the result. Instead, this game was more about individual performances, and there were a few to take note of. Darlington Nagbe and Sebastian Lletget each had some good moments in attack. The defense was largely solid. The key now will be to see some improvement in five days' time against Jamaica in Chattanooga, Tennessee. That will give observers a bit more to chew on ahead of the critical pair of World Cup qualifiers come March.
2. The U.S. attack still looked ragged
The offensive part of a team's game is always the last bit to come around during the early parts of a season. So it was really no surprise that a lack of precision around the box in key moments was the biggest reason for the home side's failure to find the net. The ability of Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Nagbe to connect passes meant the U.S. team's approach work was often decent enough in the first half. But Nagbe failed to hit the target on a trio of opportunities.
That said, Nagbe's movement made him the primary focus of the attack in the first half, and he did well to take up good positions, especially cutting inside from the wing. The end product might not have been there, but he showed enough to warrant more minutes in five days' time against Jamaica.
Another player who made the most of his chance on the day was Lletget. The LA Galaxy midfielder has been drawing rave reviews all month during training camp, and he was active after coming on at halftime for Jones, winning some key challenges in midfield, and helping to create two scoring opportunities, including one for Jozy Altidore that forced a point-blank save from Manojlovic. With Jones suspended for the next World Cup qualifier against Honduras in March, Lletget took a big step toward playing his way onto that roster.
3. Defense passes first test
Arena has been talking all month about the need to find depth at outside-back, so plenty of eyes were on Greg Garza and Graham Zusi.
Zusi in particular drew scrutiny given that he has spent the vast majority of his career at midfield. He had some nervy moments early, as Serbia threatened down his side on a few occasions with long balls over the top. But Zusi grew into the match defensively, and held up well in his one-on-one duels. He will no doubt wish he had done more in attack -- he shanked one crossing opportunity in the second half -- but it was a performance to build on.
As for Garza, he looked a bit more suspect defensively after returning to the fold from a long-term hip injury, and committed a dangerous foul in the 22nd minute. That said, he was tidier on the ball than his defensive cohorts.
With Geoff Cameron still recovering from a knee injury, plenty of eyes were on center backs Steve Birnbaum and Chad Marshall as well. Birnbaum was barely noticed, which oftentimes is a good thing for a center back, and was the case here. Marshall had several key interventions over the course of 90 minutes, but his distribution was a tad suspect at times.
Such is the nature of January friendlies. There was good and bad, highs and lows. The key now for Arena is to make sure he keeps moving the team forward.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.