First of all, let me be clear about something. Of all the non-important friendlies the USMNT plays over the course of a four year cycle, none of them are less important than the two annual January friendlies. There was no outcome to the USMNT’s match against Serbia that could have proved Bruce Arena is the wrong man for the job, or the right one.
But if ever there was a January friendly that had any meaning whatsoever, it was this one. And the U.S. failed.
One of the themes that newly appointed U.S. manager Bruce Arena has been promoting since his hiring has been the idea of a fresh slate. Every player would be given one, with players that had been jettisoned by former manager Jurgen Klinsmann being given another shot.
It would only be fair for that clean slate to go towards Bruce Arena as well. After all, while many fans were in agreement that it was time for the Jurgen Klinsmann era to end, not as many were convinced that Arena was the right man to replace him. One of the knocks against Klinsmann was his inability to deliver on his promise to get the U.S. to play a more attacking style of play and his constant playing people out of position. He was replaced by Arena, a man with a history of playing conservative football and playing guys out of position.
This was Arena’s chance to say, it’s a clean slate for everyone and here’s why things will be different. Throwing out a B+ strength squad against a Serbia “C” team whose players had a combined six international caps would have been the perfect time to roll out a new attacking style and show US Soccer fans some change.
Instead we got exactly what you would expect from a Bruce Arena coached team, with the exact same problems that plagued the recent Jurgen Klinsmann team.
For most of the game, the U.S. sat back, happy to wait for their chances to counter attack. That’s not exactly the style of play fans would want to see when playing at home against a very inexperienced Serbian side.
Arena’s job is not easy. He steps into a situation where he needs to hit the ground running and only has these two friendlies to sort things out before the must-win competitive games start back up in March. However it’s the need to hit the ground running that made some of his choices in this game so puzzling.
Friendlies are meant for two things. Either giving your first choice players a run out together to get experience playing together, or to experiment. Arena did neither of those things on Sunday, instead throwing known quantities on the field, even though we know we won’t see those players in those spots come March.
A lot was made over Arena’s decision to start the game in a 4-3-3 situation, which the media deemed a more attacking formation over Klinsmann’s preferred 4-4-2. The move allowed Arena to insert midfielder Sascha Kljestan as part of a three man midfield with Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones (who will be suspended for the WCQ against Honduras).
We already know Kljestan makes the U.S. midfield a lot more dangerous, but once again the 4-3-3 failed to make the US more dangerous for the same reason it failed under Klinsmann, Jozy Altidore can’t play as a lone striker. No matter how often Klinsmann wanted to make it work, it never would and he would always have to revert to a 4-4-2. After the U.S. mounted just one shot on target all game against Serbia, it’s obvious Altidore as a lone striker won’t work with a different manager either.
This begs the question, how can the U.S. be at their most dangerous? The answer is likely that either Altidore, Michael Bradley or Jermaine Jones needs to be dropped. If you want to play Altidore, you need a second striker. If you want to play Bradley and Jones together, you can’t play Altidore as the lone striker.
None of those questions were answered on Sunday and Arena failed to ask any new ones. His experiment of Graham Zusi at right back was fine, but all across the rest of the field Arena threw out pieces that we know exactly what they are. Ale Bedoya started on the right wing of a front three, a position that not only doesn’t suit him, but one where he will certainly not start in March.
Arena’s biggest crime might have been left back. It’s long been the USMNT’s black hole and Arena’s choice of Greg Garza was questionable at best. There is certainly something to be said about a fresh manager having a positive impact on a player, but at this point we know exactly what Garza (and Bedoya for that matter) is. An average player. We know this because we’ve seen them be average in many international games. It was naive for Arena to throw them onto the field and expect anything different.
The January friendlies were never going to solve any issues the USMNT had, but at the very least it could have given us some clues as to what those answers might be. After one game, the US missed a chance to even come away with that much.