Date: Sunday, Jan. 29
Time: 4:00 p.m. EST, 1:00 p.m. PST, 9:00 p.m. GMT
Venue: Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, Calif.
Television: ESPN2, UniMás, Univision Deportes
All-time record: 0-0 (0-2 against Yugoslavia)
The United States Men’s National Team kicks off 2017 with a friendly match against Serbia in Bruce Arena’s first game of his second stint in charge. The USA roster is made almost entirely of MLS players in their offseason and includes Philadelphia Union stars Alejandro Bedoya and Chris Pontius. Union fullback Keegan Rosenberry was invited to train at the January camp but was ultimately sent back to the Union after missing the cut for the final 23.
The January set of friendlies historically has been a launching board for many international careers, including the likes of goalkeeping stalwart Tim Howard, Union defender Maurice Edu, and Stoke City defender Geoff Cameron. Arena brings an MLS foundation to his head coaching position, and already possesses an intimate knowledge of his domestic-based player pool.
The friendlies against Serbia and Jamaica are the first for the USA since their embarrassing back-to-back defeats in the Hexagonal World Cup Qualifying against Mexico and Costa Rica that preceded Jurgen Klinsmann’s firing. Starting with the Serbia clash, Arena must restore order to the team and right the ship ahead of crucial March qualifiers against Honduras and Panama.
What to watch for Serbia
Like the American squad, the Serbian squad is made almost entirely of domestic based players since the Serbian SuperLiga is on break until February 17. Notable players from the top European leagues like Aleksander Kolarov, Branislav Ivanovic, Dusan Tadic, and Nemanja Matic are absent from the roster. No player in the current squad appeared in the squad used for the World Cup Qualifier against Wales at the end of November.
That means that the squad is largely an unknown, except for the most fervent SuperLiga supporters. Head coach Slavoljub Muslin has managed since 1988 at clubs including Standard Liege in Belgium and Krasnodar in Russia and is tactically flexible. Expect the lineup and formation for the Serbians to be a complete mystery until game time.
What to watch for the USA
This match presents an opportunity for MLS players to make their case to be included in important World Cup Qualifiers in 2017 and to earn the trust of Bruce Arena, regardless of the result. For some players, like Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, who will be making his 100th cap, the match will be a reassertion of the pecking order. For fringe players like Steve Birnbaum, Darlington Nagbe and even Chris Pontius, there is an opportunity to surge into Arena’s favors.
Arena is a much more pragmatic manager than Klinsmann, who preferred ideological football, and that should manifest itself in more conservative tactics that protect the USA’s weaknesses. Whether or not Arena will opt for two strikers is a mystery, though it seems unlikely. He will, however, almost certainly play a back four and abandon Klinsmann’s back three that crashed spectacularly in November.
What to expect
There is not a lot at stake on the results or with the opponent, but rather with the performances of squad members trying to make an impression. Unless the USMNT lays an unlikely egg, someone will have to stand out and demand attention from Arena. The list of players who make the leap during January cap is rather impressive, so Sunday’s match is viewing material for those interested in finding the future key contributors for what looks to be a trying 2017..
Prediction: 2-1 USA. The result does not matter. Benny Feilhaber stands out as does Graham Zusi in his newfound Milner-esque conversion to outside back.