Jordan Morris, Walker Zimmerman impress as Arena's U.S. fringe side win
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- The extended year-opening training camp for the U.S. men's national team is over after Friday's 1-0 friendly win against Jamaica. Now the attention shifts to two pivotal World Cup qualifying games in March that will go a long way toward determining whether the Americans can snare an invite to the global party in Russia next year.
The planning for those matches will begin immediately. And while only half of the players who took to the artificial turf field against the Reggae Boyz at Finley Stadium are likely to be on coach Bruce Arena's roster for those qualifiers against Honduras and at Panama, Friday's contest -- and the three-and-a-half-week camp overall -- will in many ways serve as the foundation for what happens in March.
"The game tonight was fast, not an easy game to play in," Arena said after picking up the first win in his second stint as coach of the national team, after a scoreless draw with Serbia last week.
"The Jamaican team really got after us, they attacked us well. It made it a good game for me to look at our players and evaluate them.
"The biggest thing we're trying to do is form a team out of this group of players and take a little pride in what they're doing.
"We've had two games where we haven't conceded a goal, which I think is a real positive."
It was far from the only one.
Before the camp-ending two-game slate, Arena said he was hoping to use the matches to answer some outstanding questions he had, mainly about individual players. Since many players in the projected American lineup for March were unavailable versus Jamaica because they're with their club teams in Europe and Mexico -- and since March lineup locks Jozy Altidore and captain Michael Bradley were on the bench to start this game -- it was a golden opportunity for this squad of mostly MLS players to show what they could do.
Mission accomplished on that front. Jordan Morris got the only goal the U.S. would need after a slick second-half buildup with Benny Feilhaber, who made his first international start in more than four years. Young defender Walker Zimmerman, in his U.S. debut, was flawless. Others took full advantage of their chance too, putting themselves in position to earn a recall for the games that really matter.
"Morris has made a statement," Arena said of the Seattle Sounders forward, who was named man of the match. "He's clearly a likely candidate for our camp in March."
Zimmerman appeared to be a long shot for the qualifying squad at the beginning of January, but the 23-year-old was so poised that he might be considered a depth option behind veterans John Brooks and Omar Gonzalez.
Sebastian Lletget put in what Arena called a "workmanlike" performance in the midfield, where Dax McCarty excelled in Bradley's usual holding role. Juan Agudelo, Morris' partner up top, was lauded by the manger for his "real good effort" despite missing a first-half chance to score.
And Jorge Villafana and Graham Zusi manned the full-back positions competently if not spectacularly, which pleased Arena, too.
"That's a position that I have some concerns about, the outside back positions," Arena said.
"So to have those two both play in two games and hold up pretty well, that's encouraging." Clearly, the players knew what was at stake. They were also happy to get Arena, who previously led the U.S. from 1998 to 2006, his first U.S. victory in more than a decade.
"That's something that we really wanted to get out of this match, getting a win and getting that winning mentality, because that's what's going to help us in March," Lletget said.
It wasn't all perfect, of course. Then again, in what was effectively a glorified scrimmage for a group of players who have been idle for a long stretch, in some cases since late October, it wasn't expected to be.
"I would've liked to have us to score a few more goals in these past two games, but that usually comes a little later in the preseason," Arena said. "Usually, the attacking players need a little bit more time."
Still, Morris' strike was a thing of beauty.
"Dax played a great ball in to Benny," Morris said, "and Benny, a very skilled player, flicked it, and I think we just played a one-two around the guy and space opened up, and luckily I was able to finish it."
"Dax found a great ball to me," Feilhaber added. "And Jordan's ball was fantastic."
But perhaps the most impressive thing about Friday's game was the defensive showing; keepers Luis Robles and David Bingham, who played a half each, didn't face a single on-target shot.
For a team that struggled mightily at the back in the two November qualifying losses that cost ex-coach Jurgen Klinsmann his job, that's no small thing -- even if the personnel were different this time around.
"Our biggest thing, what we can influence the most with the team, is our mentality when our opponents have the ball and how we move and react," Arena said. "I've been encouraged by how we've been able to become a pretty solid defensive group over the last couple of weeks."
It also gives Arena and his team something to build on for next month.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.