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United States-Serbia Preview: Bruce Arena 2, The Sequel

Bruce Arena’s only goal in 2017: Fix a USMNT that’s dead last in The Hex.

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Los Angeles Galaxy Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The return of Bruce Arena as United States Men’s National Team coach is a welcome one for most fans. No longer will writers and armchair captains have to questions the lineups and tactics of Jurgen Klinsmann, but that does not mean the current situation facing the USMNT has improved.

Losing their first two games of The Hex have put the USA in dire straights, one that Arena will be tasked with turning around almost immediately. And even in his first winter camp, Arena’s decisions on player personnel are quite telling. Decorated youngsters like Keegan Rosenberry, Wil Trapp and Gyasi Zardes have been sent home in favor of veterans like Graham Zusi, DaMarcus Beasley and Chris Pontius.

Not even Chris Wondolowski could survive the cuts this time, though New England Revolution striker Juan Agudelo did make the final roster as well as regulars Jordan Morris and Jozy Altidore. Clearly Arena is looking for answers at fullback, that’s why Beasley is back in the fold and Zusi has been seeing serious minutes at right back. Bruce doesn’t have time to give players like Rosenberry minutes at a position of need, he needs to win games yesterday.

It’s not an ideal situation for Arena, turning away talented young players for a win now directive but this is the mess he’s been asked to clean up. Until the USMNT is almost assured a spot in the World Cup, I don’t expect Arena’s veteran heavy lineup choices to change much. Yes, the European-based players like Geoff Cameron, Bobby Wood and DeAndre Yedlin will be on the roster but the younger MLS players will be missing out on the rest of the qualifying campaign I fear.

So it’s up to the veterans now to prove their worth to Arena and put themselves into the mix for call ups during the rest of 2017.

PROJECTED LINEUP

Rimando; Beasley, Marshall, Birnbaum, Zusi; Bradley, McCarty; Nagbe, Kljestan, Bedoya; Altidore

There’s a few position battles that I think Arena will focus on today. First is fullback, and I have no issues with bringing back Beasley or giving Zusi a look because both of these guys are professionals, I know I’ll get a solid effort from both. Greg Garza, Jorge Villafana and Brad Evans are also in camp and I’d expect Garza and Villafana to each get a full half of play at some point during this international break, possibly splitting time against Jamaica at left back next week.

Second, is the midfield alignment, specifically who plays next to Michael Bradley. Dax McCarty and Benny Feilhaber are the two most likely candidates and I opted for Dax to start due to his natural chemistry with New York Red Bulls teammate Sasha Kljestan. The midfield triangle has always been a major topic for the US as Bradley and Jermaine Jones have never formed an ideal partnership. Likewise, the Americans have lacked a prototypical #10 playmaker but Kljestan has looked very solid in that role when asked to play there.

Finally, Bruce Arena has said that his team has been practicing a 4-3-3 a lot this week, but I doubt that Agudelo and Morris will start this game out wide so I’m still going to call it a 4-2-3-1/4-5-1 or whatever, formations are meaningless when you’re attacking anyway.

Darlington Nagbe and Jurgen Klinsmann had a major falling out and we’ve never really figured out where Nagbe’s best position is for club or country. What we do know is that he’s good at soccer and should have an impact for the national team even if it’s coming off the bench. I’ve opted for him and Ale Bedoya on the wings in this one, giving those roles more of a box-to-box feel rather than a pure attacking force. Nagbe should be able to create space for Beasley on the overlap however, to at least get one of the fullbacks involved, I’d rather have Zusi sit back and support the attack rather than push high until he gets used to his new position.

The next two games are key for Arena because he has a lot different tactical looks he can explore over the next 180 minutes. Can Bradley operate alone as a holding midfielder with Feilhaber and Kljestan in front of him? Will the US play a diamond midfield with two strikers up top? There’s also a long list of possible impact substitutions late in the game as well which are worth keeping an eye on as role players and subs are just as important as the starting lineup.

SERBIA OVERVIEW

This is basically a Serbia Olympic roster, a lot of kids, not a lot of senior international caps and that’s not a bad thing. We’ll probably see a fairly organized team that will try to break out on the counter. It’s a perfect matchup for the US because we’re not great at breaking down teams and it’ll keep the fullbacks on their toes right from the start.

Serbia currently sits in second place in UEFA’s Group D for 2018 World Cup qualifying behind Ireland. They have a 2-2-0 record for 8 points through four games and are two points ahead of third place Wales. The USMNT has never faced Serbia though they are the national team that is credited with the history of the former Yugoslavia who the USA were 0-2 against.

The US and Serbia kick off later today from Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego with coverage on ESPN2 beginning at 4pm EDT.