First games of Arena's return provide few answers before March qualifiers
Two games down in the second Bruce Arena era and just seven weeks until that critical World Cup qualifier against Honduras. What have we learned about the U.S. men’s national team?
Not a whole lot. Oh, well. This time of year, that's how it was always going to be.
This is preseason, Arena's men are in preseason form, and friendlies against inexperienced Serbia and Jamaica sides that had been together for only a few days provided the kind of benefits seen from preseason games against such foes.
The U.S. looked sharper in Friday night's 1-0 triumph over Jamaica in Chattanooga, Tennessee, than in last weekend's scoreless draw with the Serbs in San Diego. That's often the case from the first to second preseason game, and there were good things to be seen in Friday’s win. Just don't put too much stock into what occurred.
Arena gave minutes to all 23 players on his final roster for the two-match set, and he trotted out three distinct formations while using a variety of combinations around the field. All of the Europe-based players, everyone in Mexico aside from Villafaña, and a few MLS guys weren't around. Nothing close to a first-choice XI ever stepped onto the field, in games or training.
There's only so much to be gleaned from any of this.
These encounters weren't designed to prepare the U.S. for the March 24 showdown with Honduras in San Jose, nor for another in Panama four days later, but rather to provide Arena and his staff some sense of who might be able to pitch in when the time comes. Through that prism, consider the past week a success, for the most part.
Midfielder Sebastian Lletget and fullback Jorge Villafaña made strong cases Friday night to be considered for the lineup, especially when paired on the left flank. Dax McCarty, in his first appearance since the Bob Bradley era, showed he wouldn't be out of place on the bench. Benny Feilhaber, mostly ignored by Jurgen Klinsmann, scored points with a tremendous assist on Jordan Morris' second-half goal. Darlington Nagbe shined on the left wing, especially against the Serbs. And Nick Rimando, also against Serbia, put himself into position to step into the nets if Tim Howard or Brad Guzan aren’t going to get the call.
A few more guys showed promise, but it's a big jump from these kinds of friendlies to hexagonal intensity. It's particularly difficult to assess the central defenders, given that they weren't often challenged -- the U.S. dominated possession in both matches -- and saw nothing clear to what awaits. Chad Marshall was very steady against Serbia. Walker Zimmerman, after a difficult first minute, enjoyed a fine international debut against the Reggae Boyz. Does it mean anything?
Arena accomplished plenty in his first “January” camp in more than a decade, but it was mostly foundational stuff. He set during nearly three full weeks at StubHub Center a tone for how business will be done during his tenure. His style is more about building comfort and confidence among the players than is Jurgen Klinsmann's. By all accounts, it created a tremendously positive atmosphere. Everyone benefits from that.
Now comes the real toil. Arena and his staff will spend the next month globehopping to gauge the primary pool amid questions at nearly every spot on the field. Not everybody's healthy, some are struggling with form, and a few aren't seeing enough time with their clubs. Arena needs to figure out who has to be on the field and devise the best system for them.
Honduras is must-win, and while there's confidence the Yanks will pull it out and go on to qualify for Russia 2018, there's no certainty. The work, really, has just begun.
Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.