SAN DIEGO – Bruce Arena’s second stint as U.S. coach began with the same result as his first, a 0-0 exhibition draw.
The United States had just one shot of target against a young Serbia team on Sunday, the first game for the Americans since Jurgen Klinsmann was fired after a pair of losses in World Cup qualifiers in November and replaced by Arena.
“Clearly we would have liked to win the game today,” Arena said. “But for this time of the year I was encouraged by a number of performances by our team.”
Arena led the U.S. to a 71-30-29 record in his first stint, becoming the winningest coach in American national team history and earning election to the National Soccer Hall of Fame. He opened with a tie against Australia in 1998 and was fired following the team’s first-round elimination in a loss to Ghana at the 2006 World Cup, then returned to Major League Soccer and led the LA Galaxy to three league titles.
He used mostly U.S.-based players following a three-week training camp.
“It’s another step along the way,” American captain Michael Bradley said. “We feel good about the work that has gone in the last few weeks in terms of re-establishing what we need to be about and making sure when the big moments of the real games come around this year, that we have a real clear idea of who we are and the ways we can be successful. Across the board, it has been a really good few weeks. Regardless of the results today it wasn’t going to change our feeling on that.”
The U.S. plays Jamaica on Friday in an exhibition at Chattanooga, Tennessee, then resumes qualifying. After losing its first two games in the final round of the North and Central American and Caribbean region, the U.S. hosts Honduras on March 24 at San Jose, California, and plays four days later at Panama. The top three nations in the hexagonal qualify for the 2018 tournament in Russia and the No. 4 finisher goes to a playoff, so there is time to recover.
“To be honest with you if we won 5-0 today or lost 5-0, I’m not sure it would change our world for March,” Arena said. “These games are important, especially for our domestic players. But the games that are going to count are the ones in March. That’s where you can look at me and can get really critical.”
Jozy Altidore became the 17th American men’s player to make 100 international appearances, at 27 years, 84 days the second-youngest behind Landon Donovan (26 years, 96 days).
Sebastian Lletget, a 24-year-old midfielder, entered at the start of the second half in his national team debut. Chris Pontius, a 29-year-old midfielder, made his debut in the 65th and Jorge Villafana, a 27-year-old defender, in the 69th.
Benny Feilhaber, now 31, entered in the 77th in his first appearance since January 2014. A member of the 2010 U.S. World Cup roster under Bob Bradley, he played in just three games under Klinsmann.
The best scoring chances were just before the final whistle. U.S. goalkeeper Nick Rimando made diving parry to his right on Lazar Jovanovic’s angled 10-yard shot in 89th. The U.S. countered, and Chris Pontius slid a shot just wide after Juan Agudelo failed to get an attempt off.
“At the end of the day we could be better with our chances,” Arena said. “We could have been cleaner in the final third of the field, whether that was getting our shot or being cleaner with our passes.”
Markings on the field were still visible from the last San Diego Chargers’ game before the team announced its move to Los Angeles, a loss to Kansas City on Jan. 1.
With Brad Guzan among the Europe-based players not available and Tim Howard recovering from leg surgery, the 37-year-old Rimando started in goal. Arena used a 4-2-3-1 formation that had Graham Zusi at right back with Steve Birnbaum and Chad Marshall in the center and Greg Garza at left back.
Bradley and Jermaine Jones were in defensive midfield, with Sacha Kljestan in an advanced midfield role, Alejandro Bedoya on the right flank and Darlington Nagbe on the left. Altidore was the lone forward.
Usually a midfielder, Zusi made his first international start at right back. Marshall had not played for the U.S. since January 2010 against Honduras and Rimando since April 2015 versus Mexico. Nagbe had not started since June 25 last year at Colombia at the Copa America.
Serbia, missing stars such as defenders Branislav Ivanovic, Aleksandar Kolarov and Nemanja Matic, opened with a lineup that had totaled just five previous international appearances.
“We were satisfied with our performance,” Serbia coach Slavoljub Muslin said through a translator. “We only had five days to work together.”
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