Watch: USA draws Serbia 0-0 in Arena's return; Nagbe, Pontius come close
The U.S. men's national team settled for a 0-0 draw against a second-choice Serbia side in Bruce Arena's return to the sidelines, settling for the tie at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium.
The U.S. had Sunday's match and another next Friday against Jamaica serving as the final tune-ups before crucial World Cup qualifiers against Honduras and Panama in March, and with European-based players unavailable with the January camp taking place outside of a FIFA international fixture window, Arena is on the search for players who can help him accrue the points necessary to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Arena opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Graham Zusi being tried out at right back, Greg Garza starting at left back and Nick Rimando earning the start in goal. Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones started together in central midfield in front of the back line and in back of a four-player attacking tandem, spearheaded by Jozy Altidore, who became the 17th player in U.S. men's history to join the 100-cap club.
As for Serbia, the European side fielding a domestically-based squad, with regulars and top-tier talent not released for the match given its timing on the international calendar.
The USA started slowly in the attacking third of the field, with its best early chance coming in the 19th minute. Sacha Kljestan picked out Altidore, who knocked down a header for Jones. The new LA Galaxy signing blazed his left-footed chance wide of the mark, though, keeping the match scoreless.
Jones was part of a threatening U.S. counterattack a few minutes later, but it broke down in the Serbia box, with nobody able to put a final ball on frame and Serbian defenders recovering in time.
After a silent start to the game, Darlington Nagbe–in his first U.S. start–came alive, with his 29th-minute curler from 18 yards out going tantalizingly wide of the Serbian net.
Nagbe again missed by inches with a curling effort in the 39th minute after being played forward by a pass off the outside of Jones's right foot. It appeared that Nagbe had Altidore open if he could've hit the first-time square ball inside the box, but he opted to collect and send a goal-bound chance toward the far post.
Jones, who is suspended because of card accumulation for the March 24 World Cup qualifier against Honduras, gave way for his new club teammate, Sebastian Lletget, at halftime, and Lletget made an instant impact. After winning the ball in midfield, Lletget sent Alejandro Bedoya down the right side. Bedoya picked out Kljestan with a cutback pass, and the New York Red Bulls star sent a through ball to Altidore, but his close-range effort was stuffed by goalkeeper Filip Manojlovic.
Lletget nearly had an assist later in the second half, running onto a ball from Nagbe down the left channel and sending in a cross in the 58th minute toward Kljestan. His header from the center of the box was looped just wide of the post, though.
A pair of U.S. players earned their international debuts later on, as Chris Pontius and Jorge Villafana took the field for their first caps, replacing Bedoya and Garza in straight substitutions. Jordan Morris also entered in the second half, replacing Altidore in the 74th minute of a scoreless match.
Another late sub from Arena was bringing Benny Feilhaber on for Kljestan, marking Feilhaber's return to the national team after a three-year absence.
With the seconds ticking away toward the end, Serbia nearly stole the win, with Lletget's bad giveaway in midfield sparking a counterattack for the visitors. Nick Rimando made a heroic save on Lazar Jovanovic, though, and the U.S. almost scored one of its own on the other end. Juan Agudelo, Arena's final sub, displayed some deft footwork in the box but failed to pull the trigger from in close. The ball fell to Pontius inside the box, and he put his chance just wide of the left post.
The Americans face Jamaica in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on Friday, Feb. 3, to close their winter camp.
Here was the USA's starting XI for the match:
Here were the full squads for both teams:
GOALKEEPERS: David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake), Luis Robles (New York Red Bulls)
DEFENDERS: DaMarcus Beasley (Unattached),Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders FC), Greg Garza (Atlanta United FC), Chad Marshall (Seattle Sounders FC), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna) Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
MIDFIELDERS: Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Benny Feilhaber (Sporting Kansas City), Jermaine Jones (LA Galaxy), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Chris Pontius (Philadelphia Union)
FORWARDS: Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders FC)
GOALKEEPERS: Ognjen Cancarevic (Radnik Surdulica), Filip Manojlovic (Crvena Zvezda)
DEFENDERS: Nemanja Calasan (Spartak Subotica), Nikola Cirkovic (Vozdovac), Marko Klisura (Backa Panaka), Vladimir Kovacevic (Vojvodina), Nikola Maras (Rad), Nemanja Miletic (Partizan)
MIDFIELDERS: Enver Alivodic (Novi Pazar), Jovan Djokic (Atyrau), Marko Gobeljic (Napredak Krusevac), Marko Javtovic (Partizan), Stefan Panic (Metalac), Srdjan Plavsic (Crvena Zvezda)
FORWARDS: Lazar Jovanovic (Borac Cacak), Sasa Jovanovic (Mladost Lucani), Marko Mrkic (Radnicki Nis), Aleksandar Palocevic (Vojvodina)