Armchair Analyst: Typical January rust shows as US draw vs. Serbia

There will be plenty of takes, I'm certain, on the final score of Sunday's USMNT jaunt vs. Serbia. A 0-0 draw was really on nobody's wishlist and the lack of an end product continues to be worrisome, even if it's under a new coach and at the start of what is nominally, at least, a new era.

I am not going to worry about that overly much. January friendlies pretty routinely underdeliver in terms of watchability, and guys who've been out of season for a couple of months are expected to have at least a little bit of rust. That was the case in Sunday's game, and while I'm disappointed nobody got on the scoresheet, I think it's smarter to be more interested in the underlying structures of what Bruce Arena is trying to put together in his second stint as head coach.

With that in mind:


The Beginning and the End 

The US were supposedly in a 4-2-3-1 to start this game, but it actually looked much more like a 4-1-4-1 pretty much from the moment the ball was kicked:

That's a network passing graph generated using Opta data. The circles represent each player's aggregate position, while the thickness of the lines represent the volume of passes exchanged between each combination.

And there it is, right? Michael Bradley (No. 4) very clearly held and shielded the central defense, while Sacha Kljestan was a pure attacking midfielder, and Jermaine Jones ran himself ragged between the two. In the second half Sebastian Lletget replaced Jones in the same role, and then Benny Feilhaber replaced Kljestan.

It's another stab at the same issue that's confounded both Bob Bradley and Jurgen Klinsmann: How does a manager get both Michael Bradley and Jones into the same lineup and have the team actually play cohesive soccer? We've all been pondering this since 2010 – it's been constant from the beginning of Jurgen Klinsmann's tenure to the end of it, and now it begins again.

Today's performance was, I thought, a moderately positive data point. The midfield was able to keep the ball a ton, turn a bit of that into danger, and generally concede nothing except on the flanks.


The Currents of Space

If that's the immediate focus for the US after this game, the looming issue is "Do we really have the wingers to justify going away from a two-forward lineup?" One of the few silver linings of 2016 was that Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood seem to have some real chemistry, and I went into this game assuming Arena would try to replicate that partnership by pairing Altidore and Jordan Morris up top.

Didn't happen. Instead it was Darlington Nagbe playing inverted on the left and, in a much more defensive role, Alejandro Bedoya on the right.

Nagbe had moments of pure skill and his balance continues to be extraordinary. Plus – and this could be huge – he got behind the Serbian defense several times, which is not something he usually does. Turning midfield possession into penetration requires a central midfielder or two who can weight a pass, but it also requires wingers who can make early, direct runs. Nagbe did so, getting into space fairly regularly and looking clever doing so.

Nagbe came really close twice (including one when he should've given Altidore a lay-up), and was part of a few more very good build-ups, especially in the second half. He was also responsible defensively and in possession, and generally was the most exciting US attacker for most of the day.

But if he's playing in that spot, he needs to score. And if not him, then Christian Pulisic, Paul Arriola, Morris, Wood, Chris Pontius, Juan Agudelo or Bedoya has to score. It's impossible to justify this formation if the wingers aren't going to put the ball in the net.


The Last Question

Greg Garza and Graham Zusi started at left and right back, respectively, and both struggled to make a positive imprint on the game. Each lacks recovery speed and obviously there's a heightened level of unfamiliarity on the backline given the circumstances of this camp and the US squad as a whole.

It's fair to ponder how much the US's lack of punch came from having fullbacks who basically didn't overlap. Garza did not complete a single forward pass in the attacking half during his time on the field, while Zusi only really pushed up in the game's final 15 minutes. It's not a coincidence that the US looked better then, but at the same time more vulnerable. There is always heightened risk/reward when fullbacks start getting ahead of the ball, and striking the right balance is crucial.

Bruce knows, I'm sure:

I'm not all that worried about this since Fabian Johnson, DeAndre Yedlin, DaMarcus Beasley and a few others in the pool have more overlapping gifts than the two guys who started today (and Jorge Villafaña looked pretty decent in his 21 minutes as well). But if you're looking for a reason why the US seemed a little bit mechanical in the build-up for 75 minutes, then a little bit better than that in the last 15, there you go.


A few more things to ponder...

3. The other reason the US looked better in that stretch was that Feilhaber was sharper and more inventive than Kljestan as a No. 10. These two guys are the main competition for that spot, and I think Round 1 goes to Benny.

2. Steve Birnbaum had a very good day in central defense, while Chad Marshall had a few loose touches that put the US under pressure.

1. I hope we see at least a little bit of the 4-4-2 on Friday against Jamaica.

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