U.S. team hits reset as road to Russia starts anew under Bruce Arena
SAN DIEGO -- Sunday's scoreless tie between the U.S. and Serbia was no thing of beauty, but Bruce Arena's first game back in charge of the national team mostly served its purpose for the coach and his squad of almost exclusively MLS players.
"In a lot of ways, it was a typical friendly for this time of year," U.S. captain Michael Bradley said afterward. "The afternoon kickoff and the field certainly play into things, as well, just in terms of being a little bit slower game. But you could see some of the things we've been working on. We continue to feel good about the progress we've made in these few weeks. Ultimately, the result today wasn't going to change that."
The match at Qualcomm Stadium was relatively high profile for a year-opening friendly played outside one of FIFA's international windows. The U.S. is building toward two huge World Cup qualifiers in March from which it desperately need points after the Americans lost their first two games of the final round of qualifying for Russia 2018 in November, costing then-coach Jurgen Klinsmann his job. Arena, who led the program from 1998 to 2006, was brought in to immediately turn things around.
And by and large, he was satisfied with his team's performance on Sunday. Darlington Nagbe impressed in his first U.S. start, taking home Man of the Match honors. Graham Zusi performed well in his first international match as a right-back. Center-backs Steve Birnbaum and Chad Marshall were also solid.
That's not to say there wasn't a level of frustration, at least among the players, that they weren't able to kick off their 2017 slate with a victory.
"We didn't play at a high enough tempo in order to create chances," midfielder Sacha Kljestan said. "They defended very well. When the ball turned over, they did really well to get 10 to 11 guys behind the ball, and they made it very difficult to break down. So when we won the ball, we needed to play the ball forward faster in order to break a few of their defensive lines, but we weren't able to do that."
Striker Jozy Altidore was more to the point.
"I thought we were a bit toothless in the attack," said Altidore, who became the 17th American to make 100 international appearances. Altidore registered the hosts' lone shot on goal early in the second half. "We weren't really that dangerous going forward, so that's something we have to work on."
They'll get another chance on Friday in a friendly against regional foe Jamaica in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Kljestan won't be available for that one, as his wife is expected to give birth to the couple's second child next week. Neither will fellow vet Jermaine Jones, who is suspended for the crucial March 24 qualifier against Honduras. Jones will join his new club, the LA Galaxy, instead.
That could mean longer looks for the likes of playmaker Benny Feilhaber and Sebastian Lletget, who both entered as second-half substitutes on Sunday. Others, such as central defender Walker Zimmerman and Mexican-based left back Jorge Villafana, could also see significant minutes.
"There will be a number of changes," Arena said. "We have 21 players remaining in camp, and we will utilize those players in the next game."
A new formation also is possible. Arena played Altidore as a lone striker in a 4-2-3-1 set on Sunday.
"We're still look at Jozy playing with another striker, as well," the coach said.
Altidore said he would welcome such a move.
"It's no secret for me that I'm better with a partner up there," he said.
Still, it won't be perfect.
"We've got a few days to get at it, but unfortunately, I think it will be a little bit more of the same," Altidore said. "Some of these guys are coming off two months where they didn't do anything. It's difficult to just kind of pick it up and be in midseason form."
After all, the idea is to be ready at the end of March.
"Bruce has set a really good tone from day one, and we'll use today as another day along the way in this process of being a good team," Bradley said.
"It's all part of the process of getting things back to where they need to be and making sure come March and beyond we have a real clear idea of who we are and what we need to be about."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.