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USMNT vs. Serbia: Three things we learned

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With Arena back at the helm, we break down the top three things we learned.

Serbia v United States Photo by Kent Horner/Getty Images

The U.S. Men’s National team kicked off their 2017 soccer campaign today in sunny San Diego. A somewhat small crowd of southern Californians and American Outlaws alike turned out to get their first look at what the national team will look like with Bruce Arena back at the helm. Before we dive into the three things that we learned today following the US’s tilt against Serbia, let’s make sure we all understand the nature of today’s friendly.

FIFA’s international window is not open, meaning that no club is obligated to release its players to the national team. Most foreign leagues are in the midst of their seasons. This is why the US’s 23-man roster was comprised of 22 MLS players (including our very own Nick Rimando) and one Liga MX player in Jorge Villafaña. So while we are thrilled to get our first glimpse at the team post-Klinsmann, any enthusiasm should be tempered by the fact that neither Serbia nor the US had their best 11, and this game was nothing more than a warm up to the qualification games that will reconvene in March.

So here we go, the three things we learned about the USMNT:

Arena put a premium on team cohesion and getting a win.

Unlike Klinsmann, who oftentimes tinkered to the point of nausea, Arena seemed content on the day to play with veterans in a formation that allows players to integrate quickly and gel with each other. This is evidenced by the popular 4-2-3-1 formation that he selected. This formation is effective because each role and position on the field is well defined and doesn’t require months of repetition in order to know what the teammates around you are expected to do.

This formation was used by Klinsmann in a similar fashion from time to time. Like Klinsmann, Arena placed Jones and Bradley next to each other as the two midfielders responsible for shielding the back four. Historically this has been an exercise in futility as Jones would begin to wander, forcing Bradley to cover for both of them, or retarding Bradley’s ability to push forward and create without exposing the back line to counterattacks. Today they seemed to get along well enough and Serbia didn’t ask too many questions of them on the break. Bradley was able to assist Kljestan in the attack when needed and count on Jones to help. Speaking of Jones, he had a great change in the 19th minute, too bad he couldn’t keep it on frame.

While opening the 2017 campaign with a win would’ve been ideal, I’d like to point out that this is the first time the US registered a shutout since October 7th when they defeated Cuba 2-0. Since then they conceded one to New Zealand, two to Mexico at home, and four to Costa Rica on the road in their last three games leading up to today’s 0-0 draw.

The youngsters will need to wait their turn

Arena chose to start the game using mostly veterans. This includes six of the starting 11 who participated in the World Cup 2014 in Brazil. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but with the likes of Jordan Morris (FW), David Bingham (GK), and Walker Zimmerman (CB) there were a handful of younger options who could have started and didn’t. Arena, who was probably putting a premium on getting a victory over all else, opted to turn to the seasoned vets in this friendly. We saw Nick Rimando, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Graham Zusi (we’ll come back to this one), Alejandro Bedoya and Jozy Altidore who each participated in the 2014 World Cup all get the nod to start.

Ironically, one of the few starters who isn’t a USMNT regular had the biggest impact and arguably the best game for both sides, Darlington Nagbe. Hopefully this was a prelude for a greater role and bigger things to come for the Portland Timbers midfielder as the US always has a need for creative and dynamic midfielders who can unlock a defense. Nagbe did enough to deserve a goal and on a better day would have seen his name on the score sheet. He had a particularly scintillating curler in the 29th minute that floated just wide. He had an almost identical look in the 38th minute that again went just wide.

Likewise, Benny Feilhaber who came on as a second-half sub also showed brightly for himself after being in the National team wastelands for the last four years under Klinsmann. We also saw a brief stint from Jordan Morris but he had little impact on the game.

Serbia v United States Photo by Kent Horner/Getty Images

Rome wasn’t built in a day

There is plenty to be done to see the US through qualification and on to Russia. Today didn’t answer all of our questions, but it was a move in the right direction. When it comes to the national team, momentum is everything. Despite mustering a tepid 0-0 draw, there were plenty of positives to touch on. The US out possessed Serbia 61.5% to 38.5%. The US also saw a passing accuracy of 83%, 10% higher than their opponent. Likewise, the buildup was decent enough despite the lack of goals. The US was able to generate 12 shots, sure, 5 were blocked, 6 were off target, and only 1 was on target. But it has been a long time since the US out-shot any opponent.

The US also continues to see the domestic league pay off in spades. Never have we been able to field as deep or star-studded of a line up as we did today by using domestic players only. With the likes of Altidore, Bradley, Kljestan, and most recently Bedoya joining the MLS, we have a plethora of options to choose from here on US soil. All signs point to that continuing in the future with the recent announcement that Brad Guzan is set to join Atlanta United in the not too distant future.

Other random thoughts:

Nagbe received his first start with the national team today. He made a solid case that he should continue to receive call ups and possibly even crack the first 11 on a regular basis.

Jozy Altidore received his 100th cap at the age of 27. He is the 17th player in US history to hit the century mark.

Rimando is like a fine wine. Despite being 37 years old he is still one of the best at his trade. He wasn’t called on much but when he was he delivered. He had an awkward back pass in the 20th minute that he reacted to quickly to come off his line and clear out of bounds. Similarly, in the 90th minute he had a game saving stop to keep things level.

Graham Zusi got his first crack at right back and it wasn’t the worst thing ever. He provided decent support to the attack and wasn’t a liability on the defense. Given the lack of depth at right back in the national team pool, this may be his best opportunity to continue to get call ups.

Jorge Villafaña received his first cap with the men’s team. While this doesn’t cap-tie him to the US being a friendly and all, this is a positive step towards him permanently joining the USMNT player pool.

Only three Serbian players were older than 25 and the whole team combined only had five international caps, for all that we did well we still should have beaten them.