What we learned from USA v Serbia: Bruce Arena brings lucidity to USMNT

After the uncertainty of the Klinsmann era, the sight of players being played in their best positions was a welcome one

It was a typical January camp game

With all the drama and( often unfortunate) symbolism of the regime change at the USMNT, coupled with the urgency with which the US needs to find outcomes, the game against Serbia was freighted with way more sense of expectation than it could ever be reasonably expected to bear. And thats before we even contemplate the rhetoric around national identity from Tim Howard, or the comments on American ideals from Michael Bradley.

The lead-up to this game somehow managed to frame the contest as both a distraction from weightier matters, and a meaningful prelude to weightier matters, despite all historic evidence of what January team camp games are capable of delivering.

And in the end, the game did indeed stubbornly refuse to develop into any sort of occasion though you suspect Bruce Arena will be happy enough about that. Its not like his side require any reminders of the urgency of their qualifying situation, with a crucial home game against Honduras looming in March, so perhaps more than a statement win, or a breakout superstar, there was the need for a clue of stability after the confusion of the later Klinsmann era.

January team camps have traditionally been a day for MLS players who are on the bubble with the national team to get their shot in experimental line ups. But while there was a first start for Darlington Nagbe, a test of Graham Zusi at right back, and a US debut for Sebastian Lletget, the overall feeling was of a conservative, experienced selection designed to steady the vessel. And broadly speaking thats what happened.

Its not to say this has been a typical January camp theres undoubtedly been more of a sense of urgency than usual but such triage as Arena has been carrying out on getting defensive discipline re-established was never training exercises that was going to be dramatically visible. And even with all the work he has been doing, an all-MLS roster in January is still a collect of players at pre-season levels of fitness and kind. Its hard to remember redeeming qualities from any of the corresponding fixtures in recent years, and likely not reasonable to expect anything different this time around. Any hope it would be different is more telling about the situation Arena inherited, than Sundays team falling short.

The pieces attained sense

That said, there was a merciful clarity to the US starting team, and indeed to most of the substitutes that peppered the second half. After the uncertainty of the Klinsmann era, the sight of players being played in their best stances, and with a clear brief, may not have set the pulse racing, but reminded us that whatever restrictions among the players are exposed under Arena, theyll at the least have been put into positions to succeed( or fail ).

Arena went with something like a 4-1-4-1, with Jozy Altidore the lone front man, and Michael Bradley repeatedly dropping so deep that he split the center back pairing of Chad Marshall and Steve Birnbaum. The other notional defensive midfielder, Jermaine Jones, had clear license to maraud higher up the field, while Sasha Kljestans playmaking skills were put to work in familiar areas behind Altidore.

It was all very Arena hes been around the league long enough to know whos solid where and to not try and second-guess himself or the degree of influence he can have on a game once it starts. Even the speculative aspects of his line up were based on experience starting Graham Zusi as a right back might have raised eyebrows, but Arena has previous kind with converting assaulting players to broad defenders with the national squad. Hes done it on at least two previous occasions in his last stint with “the member states national” team, and most recently with Robbie Rogers at LA Galaxy.

That said, Honduras will come too soon for the experimentation to continue Arena generally plays the odds, and anyway, the non-MLS options of Fabian Johnson, DeAndre Yedlin, Geoff Cameron et al will be in the mixture for those games. Zusi proved he could be deployed in that posture at a pinch, or when a game-state crisis demands, but he was an outlier in a team built on known qualities.

There are still questions out wide

Steve Birnbaum induced his lawsuit for a regular place in the US team. Photo: Bill Wechter/ AFP/ Getty Images

The pairings of Zusi and Alejandro Bedoya on the right and Greg Garza and Nagbe on the left were the principle area where the combinations of team-mates looked awkward. There were individual moments where each of these players did their causes good, but neither Zusi, never a speedster and mindful of his need to cover unfamiliar defensive obligations, or Garza, still building after a year-long absence with a painful bone spur injury, were ever likely to overlap with any regularity. And so it proved.

It meant that Bedoya and Nagbe did not always have outside alternatives on the occasions they got the ball in dangerous positions. Bedoya has a quicker footballing brain than hes given credit for, and can show an instinct to head for goal, particularly after turnovers high up the field, while Nagbe is never shy about taking players on and likes to float inside anyway. Both had their moments, and Nagbe in particular proved flashes of ingenuity without ever quite confiscating the day.

But without more dynamic full backs behind them, the onus was too much on Bedoya and Nagbe to be individual difference-makers, and when those efforts were directed inside, they ran into congestion. Ahead of them Altidore celebrated his 100 th cap with one of those games where hes asked to be the placeholder for where a final ball might go, while the creative force-out behind him frequently ran out of options in looking for the space to make one.

Lletget builds his occurrence so does Palocevic

One phenomenon of these all-MLS national squad camps is that, historically at the least, theyve usually revealed at least one player wholl go on to become a regular after seizing their chance. Or if not confiscating their chance, at least not looking so out of place that another chance becomes unthinkable.

The most recent beneficiary of this particular shop window was likely DC Uniteds Steve Birnbaum, who started at center back in this game, but on Sunday afternoon we might have watched enough to add Lletget to the mix. Lletget prospered under Arena at LA Galaxy, and when he replaced Jones at half-time for his US debut, he made an instant impact with his directness in the center of midfield.

Within a couple of minutes of the restart Lletget somehow emerged from a crowd of Serbian players with the ball at his feet, and initiated an attack that moved the ball vertically with more immediacy than marriage seen in the entire first half. He bided lively throughout the second half, and may have done enough to at least earn another look, though he may want to forget a couple of turnovers that led to decent Serbia chances. But Lletget was not the most eye-catching player on the field. That would be Aleksandar Palocevic the Serbian No1 0 was at the heart of everything good his squad did, and with a number of MLS teams reportedly watching him, Palocevic constructed the most of a rare shop window.

And if the US were under pressure to reinvent themselves coming into this game, this Serbian line up were nearly all under individual pressure to make an impression of their own. This was not an official Fifa date, so just as the US team could not recall their best players from Europe, virtually the entire first choice Serbian team was absent for this American jaunt the Serbian Superleague the vast majority of the starting line up.

Add in the fact that the team have travelled nine timezones for a four-day trip, were playing at the equivalent of 11pm back home, and were unfamiliar with one another play, and the latter are hardly set up to succeed. But the inventive Palocevic did his best to galvanize them anyway his flicks and inventiveness caused a lot of problems, particularly for Garza. Whatever his national squad future he may have done enough to lengthen his American stay.

Rimando may eventually be stepping out of the shadows

Nick Rimando attained his US national squad debut in 2002, under one Bruce Arena. Since then the goalkeeper has become an MLS mainstay, anchoring the RSL team for years, during which hour he has been consistently on the edge of “the member states national” squad picture.

Never closer than that though Rimando has had the calamity to not only play in a position that the US has traditionally been strong in, but to be part of an era where Tim Howard and latterly, Brad Guzan, have had the position locked down. Rimando has never played a World Cup qualifier for the team. And under Klinsmann, for whom a lifelong MLS career represents underachievement, he was never likely to. And in fairness to both Klinsmann and his successor , nobody has really been arguing for Rimando to supplant Howard or Guzan.

In that light, Rimandos selection to start the game against Serbia could normally have been read as a gesture designed to keep him in “the member states national” squad loop-the-loop, without necessarily impacting the status quo but these are not normal times. Howard is out injured for the forseeable future, while Guzan, also injured, has been on the bench for Middlesbrough anyway, since his be removed from Aston Villa last summertime. Even assuming hes back on track for the World Cup qualifiers in March, Guzan is also in the limbo of having agreed yet another move, to Atlanta, in July.

It all adds up to the possibility that the US could go into the crucial game against Honduras with Rimando in goal. He looked fine on Sunday, and demonstrated his shot-stopping virtues with a phase blank save in the last minute of video games, but its not ideal to be contemplating an inexperienced keeper at international level as an option for a must-win game. At least under Arena, though, if Rimando does play, hell be made to feel hes there on merit rather than default.

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