The U.S. Men’s National Team tied Serbia 0-0 in the first game of 2017. In front of 20,079 fans at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, there was a strong sense of chemistry and good shape for the Americans but their chances went wanting. Darlington Nagbe was the Man of the Match, who the game seemed to revolve around, and his off-the-ball movement was top class.
With many questions about how the team would line up, Bruce Arena decided to send his team out in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Veteran Nick Rimando got the nod over David Bingham in goal, Graham Zusi started at right back, and Jozy Altidore earned his 100th cap for the USMNT. Captain Michael Bradley paired with Jermaine Jones in defensive midfield, and above them were three players who have excelled for their club teams over the past few years — Alejandro Bedoya, Sacha Kljestan, and Darlington Nagbe. Of this starting XI, eight players have World Cup experience.
Trying again! Serbia XI vs. #usmnt Manojlovic; Miletic, Maras, Calasan; Plavsic, Cirkovic, Palocevic, Panic, Dokic; Jovanovic, Gobeljic,— Jeff Carlisle (@JeffreyCarlisle) January 29, 2017
This was a landmark moment for many of the players. Altidore not only hit the 100-cap mark, but became the second youngest player to get there, behind Landon Donovan by less than year. Darlington Nagbe got his first national team start, Chad Marshall made an appearance for the first time in seven years, Zusi played defense for the first time for his country, and Sebastian Lletget, Chris Pontius, and Jorge Villafaña all got their first ever cap for the USMNT.
For the first 20 minutes the U.S. dominated and was in control. Some sloppy ball control led to giveaways, but that is to be expected in the first January friendly. After the 20-minute mark, the game opened up a bit. Serbia took a corner that was well defended by the Americans. The second ball proved dangerous but the U.S. forced a turnover and went on the counter. Nagbe started the counter and the Yanks had numbers forward. Kljestan had the opportunity to put Bedoya in the 18-yard box, but the ball was behind Bedoya and the chance was over. The Philadelphia midfielder still got a cross into the six-yard box but the defense was there.
The U.S. was fortunate in the 22nd minute to avoid a penalty. Greg Garza was whistled for a foul that the referee judged to be just outside the box but replay seemed to indicate the contact took place inside the 18. The result was a free kick instead of a spot kick and the teams remained scoreless.
For the rest of the half it was more of the same. Team USA tried to hit Serbia on the counter but Serbia defended with numbers. Much of the play for the U.S. was down the left hand side to Nagbe and through the first 45 the Timbers’ star was the best player on the field.
The first half would come and go with no goals. The U.S. held over 60% possession and out-shot Serbia, 3-1, but there were no shots on goal for either team. Nagbe had two curling chances just wide. Arena called his team “sloppy” in his halftime interview on ESPN2, and said his team was “fouling too much in the defensive third” through the first half.
Nagbe stood out as the best player on the field, while Garza stood out as underperforming. Jones was a workhorse in the first half, but was clearly fatigued in the last few minutes of the half. The first half in general was exactly what you would expect from a January camp.
To start the second half, Jones came out for Lletget. Jones is suspended for the next World Cup qualifier and so Arena wanted to see if Lletget could step in for the German-American. It would be a great start for Lletget as not two minutes into his debut, he fought to win a ball near midfield and got open to receive the ball back before feeding Kljestan, which led to a one-on-one opportunity for Altidore with Serbian goalkeeper Filip Manojlović. Lletget would continue his good play in the second half, and got his head coach’s praise for his production after the match.
The USMNT would have a handful of more chances, but the Serbian defense would not break and U.S. could not connect on the final pass. In the next few minutes Pontius and Villafaña would come on for U.S. to make their international debuts.
In Altidore’s 100th cap he had a pretty quiet game. He did not get involved much and did not even record a shot on goal. His replacement was the 22-year-old MLS Rookie of the Year, Jordan Morris. Morris immediately made an impact, getting into the final third, where he took on three Serbian defenders to no avail.
There was some late game action as first Serbia’s Stefan Panic played a great ball into Lazar Jovanovic. Jovanovic was clear on goal and nailed a left-footed shot, but Rimando made the save to keep the score level. The U.S. immediately went on the counter, and the ball fell to Juan Agedelo in the box. A slight hesitation led to the ball being blocked. When the ball landed at Pontius’ feet, the Union forward hit it just wide.
Overall the U.S. played well and had a good sense of cohesiveness that the USMNT has not seen for awhile. They could not connect on the final pass, but that may have more to do with Serbia’s defensive shape. Serbia was extremely structured and would not break. The U.S. was pretty sloppy through out, but for a January game the only negative was not finding the back of the net.
After the game Bruce Arena said on the broadcast that this was a fair result and it was “encouraging... For this time of the year it wasn’t a bad game.” He picked out Zusi and Nagbe as playing well, and was positive about his team’s overall performance.
The USMNT is back in action Friday against Jamaica at 7 p.m. ET.