A make or break 2017 for the USMNT began at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego on Sunday afternoon. It culminated with a scoreless draw against Serbia in the first game of Bruce Arena‘s second stint as manager.
The final scoreline belied what was an entertaining affair with plenty of scoring opportunities for the home team. The problem came down to finishing said opportunities. The US finished with eight chances created and 12 total shots, but just one of them managed to find the target.
What are the most prominent storylines to take away from this game? Which players impressed? Neither side could be classified as full strength. But is there concern about the US’ inability to score against a Serbia back four who came into this game with a combined seven appearances for the full national team?
Biggest Takeaways from USMNT Draw vs Serbia
Darlington Nagbe Showed Attacking Potential
Suffice it to say that this is what we want to see out of Darlington Nagbe when he’s in a USMNT uniform. The Portland Timbers attacking midfielder was good on the ball, dynamic in space, and able to create quite a bit of danger in the attacking third. Nagbe had two clear cut chances in the first half where he took on a Serbia defender, cut inside, and tried to go top corner with a far post curler.
One of those near scores can be seen below.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) January 29, 2017
The 26-year-old played 87 minutes before being subbed out for Juan Agudelo. And it could successfully be argued his stint was the best of any player who saw the pitch for the USMNT. This is a promising development for fans who’ve been conducting the Nagbe hype train ever since he made his debut for the Yanks.
Sebastian Lletget Made His Mark
Sebastian Lletget came on for his new LA Galaxy teammate Jermaine Jones at the start of the second half. In so doing, he earned his first cap with the senior national team after having seen time at U-17, U-20 and U-23 level. And if his performance was any indication, he wants to figure prominently into a reversal fortune for the US in World Cup qualifying.
Lletget seems to relish his relatively new role as more of a box-to-box midfielder. He previously operated more as a wide player when he originally came to the Galaxy. But Arena transitioned him to a more withdrawn central midfield capacity when he was still coaching in LA.
On Sunday, Lletget reprised that role rather competently in the second half. He was surgical distributing the ball downfield which helped to stretch a Serbia defense not afraid to stay compact. He completed 89 percent of his passes and had one of the US’ eight chances created.
Jermaine Jones isn’t getting any younger. And his injury history since he came to MLS is a perfect indication. Even Taylor Twellman said on the telecast regarding Jones: “Father time is undefeated.” It’s high time to begin preparing for a USMNT without him. And Lletget could be an option to fill that potential void down the road.
Graham Zusi Solid in an Unfamiliar Role
Perhaps the most eye-catching move from Arena in the starting XI was Graham Zusi at right back. With no DeAndre Yedlin in the squad and Keegan Rosenberry not making the final 23-man roster, the position was fairly thin. Fullback, in general, has been a bugaboo of sorts for the USMNT, primarily on the left.
But Zusi acquitted himself well. He was one of four field players Arena didn’t take out of the game. Though not known as a defensive stalwart, the Sporting KC mainstay was consistently solid winning possession and putting out fires all day on his flank.
This Opta chalkboard which shows his defensive actions (recoveries [orange], interceptions [blue], tackles [green], clearances [purple]) should give a pretty succinct indication of his industriousness on the day.
All in all, Zusi accounted for 13.4 percent of USMNT defensive Opta events. That tied Michael Bradley for highest on the team. Though he’s likely not a long-term option at right back, credit him for rising to the occasion when his team needed him.
Concerns Over Lack of Width
You can’t fault the USMNT’s efforts at proactive soccer, especially in the first half. They owned the ball for over 60 percent of the time and fared pretty well generating chances. But one stat stands out from the opening 45. Serbia out-crossed the US 15-5. This despite the significant disparity in possession.
What this speaks to is the US not playing with enough width. Too often were they content to tuck in and create the bulk of their scoring chances in the center of the park. As a result, Serbia’s defense were rarely stretched, choking away space in the box for Jozy Altidore to operate. The USMNT number nine, making his 100th appearance for the Stars and Stripes, didn’t manage a single shot in the first half.
Things improved a bit in the second stanza. Right out of the locker room, Altidore fired the US’ only shot on target. The team managed 12 crosses and were altogether much more active on the flanks. Going forward, being multi-dimensional in the attacking third will be key towards opening up opposing back lines.
Overall, it’s way too early to make snap judgments on what to expect in March during those two do-or-die qualifiers against Honduras and Panama. That said, there was certainly a combination of promising as well as concerning things coming out of this first friendly. Either way, it’s onward to Chattanooga, TN where Arena and company will continue to establish the identity of this squad against CONCACAF rival Jamaica.