U.S. draw feels like a missed chance for raw squad to get fans excited
CARSON, Calif. -- Balance is a major consideration whenever a manager puts together a roster or a starting XI. The coach has to weigh attack vs. defense, youth vs. experience and so on.
The stakes involved also play a part. The calculus is different for a friendly than, say, a World Cup qualifier, which brings us to Sunday's friendly against Bosnia & Herzegovina, one that ended in a 0-0 tie.
Interim manager Dave Sarachan had spent the previous 18 days putting 29 players, most of them light on experience, through their paces. And while those chosen for Sunday's match were eager to impress, there was little on the line in terms of the result. Against a Bosnia side that was even less experienced than its American counterpart, it practically begged for some risk-taking.
What was offered up instead, at least to start the match, was a fit of conservatism from Sarachan. The construction of his midfield in particular was perplexing in that it lacked creativity. The central trio was comprised of two-way players Tyler Adams, Wil Trapp and Cristian Roldan, with Gyasi Zardes and Jordan Morris stationed out wide.
"I think in terms of the defensive structure of the group, it was solid," Sarachan said afterward. "I think [Roldan, Trapp, and Adams] had the freedom to release and join in with C.J [Sapong] early, whether it was Cristian or Tyler. I don't consider them pure passing No. 10s but at the same time, with their runs out of midfield, I thought we were dangerous actually.
"It wasn't so much the creative passing that we expected but it was the dangerous 'third man running' that guys like Tyler [Adams] can make out of the midfield. I thought he did a good job of that, and I thought there were moments where if we had picked him out a little bit earlier we could have been even more dangerous. I still think they created some chances."
Sarachan adopted the same strategy in the 1-1 draw with Portugal last November, but that match, just a month after the failure to qualify for the World Cup and on the road against a European power, had a "don't get your butt kicked" vibe about it. Job done there. This match was at home, against a decidedly under-strength side, yet Sarachan opted to take the same approach in the first 45 minutes.
The chances in the second half were of higher quality, however, and it's not a surprise that those came after the introduction of Kelyn Rowe and Paul Arriola with Morris moving up top in place of Sapong. Rowe helped create a pair of clear chances and nearly latched on to a Morris cross. The Seattle Sounder got into good spots more than once only for his finishing to let him down.
But the conservative bent in the opening 45 minutes is why this match felt like a bit of a missed opportunity.
Granted, the act of doling out playing time has to be a meritocracy, especially after an 18-day camp. And it wasn't as if Sarachan started a bunch of 30-somethings, though Justin Morrow (30) and Sapong (29) did get extensive playing time. A player for the future like Adams got more minutes and experience at international level, as did the likes of Walker Zimmerman and Matt Polster, despite their ups and downs.
Trapp was sharp in 90 minutes of work, yet the U.S. side remains at a deficit in terms of creativity. If the friendlies in the first half of 2018 are about looking to the future, a player like Rowe should be on the field from the beginning.
Will Rowe be a fixture on the road to 2022? Who knows, but the focus ought to be about maximizing opportunities for the chance-creators in the group.
To be clear, Sarachan has done some good things during his time in charge. (He told ESPN FC over the weekend that it's his expectation he'll run the show during the international window in March.) The interim tag can be difficult to navigate, and the day-to-day work he's done has brought some stability to the program amid chaos. But a bit more derring-do will help accelerate a process whereby fans can get excited about their team again.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.