The United States Men’s National Team begins 2017 play Sunday in San Diego with a friendly against Serbia at Qualcomm Stadium (4 ET, ESPN 2). The game also marks the first game of Bruce Arena’s second stint as national team manager.
Arena returns, of course, after autumn’s World Cup qualifying failures against Mexico and Costa Rica, resulted in Jurgen Klinsmann being fired after a five year run as manager/technical director/grand exulted mystic ruler of US Soccer. The Klinsmann era undoubtedly had some successes, including a Copa América semifinal appearance as a high-water mark. But it is the failures- missing two Olympics, finishing fourth in a Gold Cup on home soil, a significant qualifying hole- that ushered in the return of Bruce Arena.
The return of Arena is not without questions.
Yes, Arena oversaw what many regard as the US Men’s Program’s finest hour, guiding the US to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup, outplaying Germany in the process. But his exit, coming after US failure at the 2006 World Cup, was also a watershed moment and one that led the US down a winding but eventual path to Jurgen Klinsmann, an “outsider” with “continental” credentials many believed critical to move the US into the global footballing elite. It didn’t happen.
Whether Arena has learned and evolved from his 2006 experiences and failures was a focus at his introductory press conference, and the answers will play out on the pitch in 2017, with World Cup qualification hanging in the balance.
Whether the US has a long-term succession plan, with Arena playing the role of custodian of the US soccer trust, is not an inconsequential debate but probably one that is better discussed in the future. That might play out differently any other year, but in 2017, every goal outside of qualifying for the World Cup is secondary, and even the most-seasoned of fiduciaries is rarely entrusted with more.
That Arena has only this camp, hamstrung by falling outside FIFA international dates and as a result, long-designed to integrate and identify fringe players of value to the depth of the US player pool, complicates matters and magnifies the arduous task ahead of the longtime LA Galaxy manager. The US are behind 5 in goal difference, lost a home game and an aura of invincibility in the process and sit on zero points. Margin for error is nominal, and by the time Arena meets with his full complement of players, two more qualifiers will await with no friendly preceding them.
Heady stuff, and why Arena, a veteran of two CONCACAF qualifying campaigns, was brought in to manage the side. This was not the time for sea change, no matter the merits of a fresh face long-term. That moment came and went in October of 2015, when the US failed to qualify for the Rio Olympics and lost the continental championship to Mexico on the same fateful day. Sunil Gulati opted instead to stick with his man, and Klinsmann’s successes at the Copa this past summer, as well as a mesmerizing performance against Trinidad and Tobago in qualifying after Labor Day, seemed to vindicate that decision. But the systemic issues plaguing the Klinsmann regime: a lack of playmakers in the center, defensive breakdowns, seemingly arbitrary tactical tinkering- caught up with the US against quality opponents in the opening two Hexagonal games, and here we are.
Sunday, the US seeks to begin a redemptive march to renewal, with a chiseled veteran of battles past leading the way.
Arena 2.0 preview then? Usuals; then particulars.
Series: First Meeting. The United States has played Yugoslavia twice, losing each, but meetings with the independent nations that broke off from the former nation have been limited to matches against Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and a well-remembered 2010 World Cup group stage match against Slovenia. The US also played a marvelous youth match against Serbia in the 2015 U20 World Cup quarterfinals, won by Serbia in penalties. In what is now the 8th year of this website, this is only the third time we’ve been able to write “First Meeting.”
Weather: 70 degrees and sunny at kick. Seriously, San Diego weather isn’t fair. Full roster or no, it is almost enough to kick yourself for not hopping on a jet plane and covering the match live.
What to Watch for From the Yanks:
Welcome to the first match of US Soccer’s second Bruce Arena era. Get pumped! Well, maybe. More likely, get ready to bite your nails through two nearly must-win World Cup qualifiers coming up in March! And as noted above, it’s that dire situation (zero points and bad performances to take from the first two matches of the Hex) that led to this second Bruce Arena tenure with the national team.
As a brief refresher, it was the TYAC consensus opinion that manager Jurgen Klinsmann should’ve been fired after blowing the CONCACAF Cup match against Mexico at the Rose Bowl in October of 2015. The team was coming off a dismal Gold Cup, and they blew their last chance to salvage their spot in the Confederations Cup. Firing Klinsmann then would have given US Soccer an opportunity to think big, and make an ambitious, idealistic managerial hire. But that didn’t happen. So Jurgen seemingly pulled the team (and his butt) out of the fire, and put together a good semifinal run in Copa América Centenario. Then it all fell apart in the team’s most recent matches. The Yanks were finally beaten by Mexico in Columbus, and they followed that heartbreaker with a complete no-show down in Costa Rica. I mean, it was really bad, even by US at Costa Rica standards, which are well, bad. So Jurgen’s out, and when you’re oh-and-two to start the Hex, the opportunity to make that aggressive, high-minded hire is well out the window. This team needs immediate stabilization, so Arena was the logical hire. TYAC approves; now let’s see him get performances out of this team right away.
The World Cup situation also changes the nature of the glorified January USMNT tryout session “Camp Cupcake”. And no, we didn’t make that up, we’re not that clever. This time the January squad’s got a lot more certified national team meat on it, so we’re calling it Camp Flank Steak. We did make that one up; that’s about the extent of our cleverness. That said, the mix of veterans and newbies has us looking for continuity, organization, and fluency, along with the usual January hope for inspiration from new guys taking their shot.
That shouldn’t be too hard to accomplish in this first match, given the green-beyond-belief squad Serbia’s bringing to SoCal. That said, a look at last January could prove instructional. The team was coming off a crappy fall. Sound familiar? And Iceland was looking to blood some new talent stateside, while leaving it’s Euro qualifying stars at home. So, while the American Campers de Cupcake could boast more talent and professional pedigree going into the match, Iceland could only hope to benefit from the system used by the real national team as it excelled in qualifying. Iceland’s organization and well-drilled ball movement won out for most of the match. The US looked lousy for most the match.
It’s instructive. I’m not going to go all the way and suggesting you should expect the managerial change to be a wand wave resulting in this US team bossing a game against fringe Seriban national teamers. Even with the likes of Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones in the squad, that is unlikely. That said, it is comforting, that even in some of the darkest, most disjointed days of the Klinsmann regime, last January’s Yanks summoned the fighting spirit to come back and beat Iceland three-to-two after trailing twice. This is also where I’m obligated to point out it was Steve Birnbaum who authored the late heroics, and his stock has been steadily rising ever since. The DC United center back went from 2016 national team newcomer to Camp Flank Steak defensive leader. He may not be long for MLS, or for the full-strength USMNT bench, and with trialist Matt Hedges regrettably home with an injury, he’s a player with a great chance to stake a claim this weekend.
Make up the lineup how you will from Arena’s final 23:
GOALKEEPERS (3): David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake), Luis Robles (New York Red Bulls)
DEFENDERS (8): DaMarcus Beasley (Unattached),Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders FC), Greg Garza (Atlanta United FC), Chad Marshall (Seattle Sounders FC), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna, MEX), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
MIDFIELDERS (9): Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Benny Feilhaber (Sporting Kansas City), Jermaine Jones (LA Galaxy), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Chris Pontius (Philadelphia Union)
FORWARDS (3): Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders FC)
If we were in the business of guessing, we’d note that Villafaña was a late call-up, making it less likely he plays in the opening game. Look for some back four grouping that involves Birnbaum, Beasley and Graham Zusi (more below).
It’s the midfield where things are most interesting. Arena’s opening press conference emphasized the US need to find creative players in the center of the park- hardly a novel concept but one where the searching out looks different in practice. It’s about how you pursue finding those playmakers, through deployments and combinations, that is of import. Kljestan is probably a certainty to get one of the first looks. How he performs, and how other creative players like Benny Feilhaber look, is the most intriguing question in this camp.
Goalkeeper is also fascinating. If Arena decides on one starter for both matches- is that a sign that he knows who his number three is? And what does that portend for the position moving forward?
What will we see out of Serbia?
I’m not going pretend I know anything about these players.
This isn’t even an Iceland situation, where they’re bringing their C- team to the US. These are Serbian kids, most of which have never donned the senior national team jersey. Most of them play for club teams whose names I can’t confidently pronounce, and let me note that as a longtime international soccer writer and hockey fan, I’m a beast in the pronouncing game. Like Iceland, Serbia is playing well in the matches that really matter. Iceland had qualified for a Euro in which they would eventually play Cinderella, while Serbia sit second in their World Cup qualifying group. And if Iceland’s national team identity could travel overseas with its kids, so can Serbia’s. But while Iceland is known to be organized, methodical, and opportunistic, Serbia is big, physical, and intimidating. These players grew up idolizing guys like Nemanja Vidić. My guess is they didn’t make the trip to San Diego to lie on the beach and let Benny Feilhaber jog with the ball and pick his pass.
The formation is usually a 4-2-3-1, with menacing wingers that like to get deep and stay wide and a double pivot center midfield that sits a bit deeper. This means Serbia can get disconnected, but they tend to avoid that because they are slick in the transition game, frenetically collapsing as a group of six to win the ball when it is in the defensive third of the field and ushering it to either a capable number ten or quickly to a deep-dropping wing on the break. The sheer amount of space the Serbian wingers cover is a challenge- and why this match is maybe a sneaky good test of the international viability moving forward of the various American fullbacks in the camp, including…
The American Player to Watch: Graham Zusi (Sporting KC)
Yeah sure, Birnbaum might for pushing for starts, and so’s Jordan Morris. And can Dax imitate his MLS form of two seasons ago with the national team? And what about Greg Garza; he looked like a decent option at left back before Jurgen decided he never wanted to see his face again? I could go on making cases for why half the guys on this squad should be our Player to Watch.
But Zusi’s controversial position-switch is a trump card.
From one point of view, it makes absolutely no sense. The Sporting Kansas City midfielder’s lack of sprint speed has always been one of the knocks on him as a winger. And that was a criticism before he got old. Dude turned 30 last year. Using that age as a convenient barometer for declining performance may be an outdated metric, but Zusi’s not exactly an AC Milan Lab test case. Add to the argument any number of speedy midfielders that have successfully converted to fullback at some point because makeup speed is a great equalizer. We’ve got one in this very squad in DaMarcus Beasley. We also saw a raw-but-fast DeAndre Yedlin hold his own against world-class Belgian attackers in the World Cup despite being technically outmatched. But Zusi’s never had that speed, and even a blood infusion from Usain Bolt won’t buy him a step now.
So what gives?
Advocates for Zusi’s consideration as possible backup to Yedlin at right back are banking on his work-rate and coachability. And both of those factors have always been off the charts. Now, does that make him a viable defender immediately? I don’t think so. But there’s an old basketball idiom, saying defense is 90% desire and 10% ability. Granted, with the wider gaps between players inherent in a soccer field, we have to adjust that ratio some. But the idea might still hold water.
Herculez Gomez, who will join ESPN’s broadcast team moving forward with MLS and US games (great hire, ESPN!!), once told TYAC that defense is basically investment. “No one wants to play defense,” Gomez said. “It’s just about whether you are willing to invest, willing to do the work and grind and chase. Some guys get tired of it after a half because it isn’t ever fun. The best players understand it impacts winning.”
Here’s where it makes sense then. Zusi has always been willing to invest defensively. Peter Vermes knew this when he played Zusi at fullback in a pinch last season in MLS, and was rewarded with a performance that earned Zusi “MLS Team of the Week” honors. There’s no doubt Bruce Arena saw that, and realizing that his national team fullback options weren’t splendid, combined with the understanding that Graham Zusi’s days as an international wing were over, what did the new manager have to lose?
Zusi has nothing to lose either, and if somehow Zusi can make it work for him, and become a serviceable defender, think about what comes with it. Zusi is one the USMNT’s best passers every time he steps on the field, in the run of play and from set pieces. He has been since he made his Camp Cupcake debut what seems like a decade ago, and we made him our American Player to Watch back then for that very reason. And as David Beckham will tell you, those ball skills don’t deteriorate like all the fast-twitch muscle fibers they test at the NFL Combine. What has fallen off is Zusi’s ability to move around in the midfield in an international game. This is his chance to preserve his career at the international level.
Zusi as a defender would be a nice little luxury for a national team relatively short on luxury. But can he move well enough in that spot to defend?
That’s worth watching.
Serbian Player to Watch: Marko Jevtović (Partizan)
Marko Jevtović is an uncapped 23 year old midfielder who plays for Partizan.
Partizan Belgrade/Red Star Belgrade is the nastiest soccer rivalry you’ve never heard of. If you’ve read Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains The World you can skip this paragraph; I’m not going to write about Marko Jevtović.
The blood feud that is Red Star v. Partizan roughly translates from Serbian as Eternal Derby, and that’s by far the most family friendly aspect of this rivalry that makes the Rangers-Celtic Old Firm look like the guy that brought a knife to a gunfight. I’m not going to recount stories from the book, because Mr. Foer already did that so well, but suffice if to say that the supporters groups make Italian Ultras look cobblestone quaint. It helps (hurts?) that one team’s supported by the Belgrade police force while the other is backed by the Serbian military. And on-field violence in this derby has gone miles past the fabled English game of 70’s and 80’s.
I’m going to end it there, movie teaser style. Borrow How Soccer Explains The World from a friend or something. Belgrade is one of the first chapters.
But you have to pick a side.
Prediction: USA 3 – 2 Serbia
By all accounts, Bruce has the boys loving life in his first camp back in the saddle. I’m thinking that translates into goals. But there’s no substitute for continuity in the back four, and we’re almost certainly going to be treated to four guys that have never played a real match together. So we’ll leak a couple goals. Big whoop, wanna fight about it?
Enjoy the match, and Go USA!
Jon Levy is co-founder of The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter @TYAC_Jon.