It doesn’t make much sense to draw sweeping conclusions about the direction of the USMNT after yesterday’s U.S. vs. Serbia match, and it wouldn’t no matter what the result was. Despite being Bruce Arena’s re-debut at the start of his second spell as USMNT manager as he ushers the team into its post-Klinsmann era and featuring the talents of a few staples of American international soccer—Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Jozy Altidore, etc.—there still were more than enough reasons to justify a measured reaction to the game.
This was, after all, a stakes-free offseason friendly between one team—the U.S.—full of players from a talent-deficient domestic league, most of whom hadn’t kicked a ball in a meaningful competition in a couple months, on a roster missing the country’s most explosive players, and another team—Serbia—full of players from a talent-deficient domestic league, most of whom had never kicked a ball in a meaningful international competition and will never do so (following yesterday’s match, the combined international cap count for all 18 Serbians called up for the game now stands at 23), on a roster completely devoid of every single one of the country’s most explosive players.
For the U.S., the primary goal of the match and the training camp that preceded it was for the players to work up some fitness, hopefully make a good impression on the new coaching staff so as to potentially receive a call-up for the full-strength USMNT when it reconvenes in a couple months, and, if everything went perfectly, for Arena and the boys to earn some easy goodwill by nabbing a win over their largely disinterested opponents with a pretty goal or two. For Serbia, their interest in the game probably started and ended when they cashed the check U.S. Soccer cut them to fly out to San Diego for a glorified tune-up scrimmage. Suffice it to say, this was not an environment for grand revelations.
As utterly inconsequential as the match may have been, there still was something fairly important to be sifted out of the resulting 0-0 draw: The fundamental problem of American soccer, that the players just aren’t that good, endures.
We could talk about how Darlington Nagbe for the most part impressed as a left-sided attacking midfielder pitter-pattering the ball around the opponents with his soft touch and fluid movement, or how Graham Zusi didn’t look completely lost in an unfamiliar position as a right back, or how Altidore was pretty decent for once at contributing to play as a lone striker. We might try to surmise what Arena’s formational (is the 4-2-3-1 here to stay?) and strategic (will the U.S. commit to this kind of pressing?) choices might mean going forward. None of that really matters, though. Most of those are things that can change from game to game, depending on the quality of the opponent and the make-up of the squad. What isn’t likely to change any time soon is that the talent pool, as evinced by this squad comprising mostly of the best American players in the American league, isn’t great.
Proof of this is the simple fact that the USMNT’s B-team couldn’t beat or even look all that impressive against Serbia’s D-team—and in telling ways. Despite Nagbe’s alluring moments of interplay and the presence of the creative Sacha Kljestan, who may very well end up being the USMNT’s primary playmaker in games that actually matter, the U.S. had trouble causing any real danger. The U.S. took 12 shots, many of them speculative long strikes or low-percentage headers, but could only get one on target. It all showed the same lack of a truly gifted creator or scorer that has plagued the U.S. forever, and especially since the decline of Landon Donovan. On the other end, Serbia popped off 8 shots, got two on target, and should’ve been awarded a penalty thanks to a bad Greg Garza challenge. The USMNT did control the match and were never under any sustained pressure, but playing just pretty well against a completely anonymous Serbia team isn’t good enough for a team with America’s aspirations.
There has been lots of talk lately about the quality of this USMNT team, with Donovan calling this bunch the “most talented group” in America’s history. This claim—putting aside its borderline truth value—is in part meant to ding Klinsmann, the implication being that he wasn’t wringing enough goals and wins out of a good field of players. It’s quite possible that the U.S. in fact should’ve been playing better than they were when Klinsmann was justifiably fired, and it also wouldn’t be a surprise if Arena was able to do more with the available talent than Klinmann did at the end of his tenure. What is still clear, though, is that the majority of America’s players don’t stack up very well against the elite nations of Europe and South America, nor do they with those of Mexico, nor can a U.S. team lining up with the likes of Bradley and Jones and Altidore and Nagbe and Kljestan have it in them to do much damage to a bad Serbia team.
Arena will undoubtedly have this team playing better than they did yesterday once the meaningful games come around, and when these MLS players are match-fit and buoyed by the abilities of Europe-based guys like Christian Pulisic and Fabian Johnson and Geoff Cameron, there’s no reason not to expect them to qualify for the World Cup and hope to make some noise there two summers from now. Still, USMNT fans should never lose sight of the larger issue, the one that, more than tactical inconsistency or odd personnel decisions or anything else, cost Klinsmann his job even though he more than any other person in U.S. Soccer was focused on addressing it: The U.S. does not have enough very good soccer players to be a very good team. No amount of coaching know-how or patriotic commitment will change that.