By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 2, 2017) US Soccer Players - Old things have become new again for the USMNT lately. First there's the return of Bruce Arena. Then there's the recall of several players left out of the pool for years under the previous coach. Despite what you may have heard, even stumbling into real trouble in World Cup qualifying is not a new experience for this program in the modern era. Just ask Arena. His team faced a win-or-else game against tiny Barbados in the 2002 cycle. The same cycle that led to that glorious World Cup showing in South Korea.
The hunt for creativity and unpredictability in attack is a familiar theme, too. It was the most glaring issue in last weekend's 0-0 draw with Serbia. It will also take center stage when the Yanks wrap up January camp with a friendly vs Jamaica in Chattanooga, Tennessee on Friday night (7pm ET - FS1).
This country's player development system has made strides in a number of contexts in the 21st century. But the efficient identification and cultivation of playmaking talent remains its well-established Achilles heel. At senior level, Arena has cited his concerns with the USMNT's recent shortcomings in this department from practically his first day back on the job.
"We need a better passer in the midfield than we have. We need to have a player in the attacking half of the field that can deliver the right ball at the right time,” he said back in November. "There's a couple of domestic players that are very good at that that we'll look at in camp in January, and that to me is an area that we've got to identify. We have to find someone in the center of midfield who can be a little bit more creative."
So Arena called Sacha Kljestan, Benny Feilhaber, Sebastian Lletget, Darlington Nagbe, Chris Pontius, and Juan Agudelo into January camp. He also brought in Kekuta Manneh, who is still waiting for full international eligibility for the US. That's a diverse range of players capable of inventive play in the final third, from a variety of different roles and spots on the field.
US fans tend to look wistfully at the guile, ingenuity, and skill that seems to grow on trees in places like Argentina and Brazil. Yet you can't say Arena hasn't given himself options in this regard. The question is which combination, and in which shape, consistently creates the most danger for the opposition.
Save Manneh, every name mentioned got a runout against Serbia. None could find the back of the net in San Diego, however, despite some promising flashes and near-misses. That made Sunday's game a less entertaining spectacle than it could've been. It also amped up the pressure to carve open the Reggae Boyz defense with more regularity on Friday.
“I thought we weren’t really that dangerous going forward. It’s something we’ve got to work on,” Jozy Altidore told reporters after the Serbia match, expressing his reservations about the lone-striker element of the 4-1-4-1 formation Arena tried out. “Defensively we did OK, but I thought we were just a bit toothless up there.”
Here, the circumstances of the moment threaten to clash with overarching priority #1 of every January camp: Player evaluation. In the normal situation, we'd expect the coach to rotate in a dramatically different lineup against Jamaica. The end of camp becomes about getting all the players time on the field. This might also include a look at the 4-4-2 shape that Altidore and others generally prefer. However, if attacking dynamism is the pressing issue that it appears to be – the Yanks have scored just twice in their last +360 minutes of play – then some continuity might be useful.
Kljestan, who started as the #10 against Serbia, departed camp this week to be with his wife as they await the imminent birth of their second child. That would seem to open the door for Feilhaber to get a longer runout at that spot on Friday. A bit deeper in midfield, Jermaine Jones has rejoined his new club team the LA Galaxy. That means a new face could get a shot in the box-to-box #8 role alongside Michael Bradley. Could a different skillset like Lletget's or Bedoya's change the outlook in the engine room? Perhaps, but this issue is bigger than one player or one position.
It's true that special players of the past like Claudio Reyna, John O'Brien, and Landon Donovan have had a multiplier effect on their teams. Fostering creativity and craftiness on the USMNT is not really a plug-and-play situation, however. Chemistry is huge here. That means picking the right mix of individuals AND arranging them in a scheme that empowers and liberates them.
It was heartening to watch the nuanced Nagbe carve out danger as a pinched left midfielder against Serbia, especially when teammates drifted into his neighborhood to force defenders into tough decisions. Would packing one or two similar players into the lineup spread that phenomenon, or open up weaknesses elsewhere? Can two friendlies and less than a month of training build new bonds that are powerful enough to carry into March's two pivotal Hexagonal qualifiers?
Arena is juggling multiple variables here. If the offense doesn't find a rhythm vs Jamaica, the questions will get tougher and the nerves will flare again at a delicate time for the USMNT.
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