- Instead of throwing caution to the wind and experimenting with the U.S. men's national team's array of uncapped young talent and players with playmaking skills, interim manager Dave Sarachan took a pragmatic approach to an awkward friendly between two nations that will be watching the World Cup from afar.
Two countries that will miss this summer’s World Cup kicked off an anti-climactic 2018 with a Sunday friendly that featured a host of uncapped players, an interim coach going up against a debutant, a half-empty stadium and, naturally, no goals.
Both the USA and visiting Bosnia-Herzegovina had their chances. But rust, youth, and one spectacular save from goalkeeper Bill Hamid conspired to ensure the game ended in a 0-0 deadlock.
Bosnia will move on to face Mexico, which is preparing for a World Cup, on Wednesday in San Antonio. The U.S. players, meanwhile, will return to their MLS clubs (except for Hamid, who’s heading to Denmark’s Midtjylland) for phase two of their preseasons. Whatever they got out of their three weeks in a U.S. kit may reveal itself down the road, but it didn’t make a dent on the StubHub Center scoreboard.
Here are three thoughts from relatively uneventful game in Carson, California:
Sarachan proceeds with caution
Interim USA coach Dave Sarachan sent the message this month that the national team should always play to win, and he also sounded like a man who wants to be considered for the position permanently. Understanding those perspectives makes Sunday’s lineup choice a bit more understandable, even if it frustrated some.
Why not play all the kids and throw caution to the wind? Maybe because a more thoughtful, pragmatic approach—and perhaps a victory—might send some worthwhile signals. Sarachan said he wanted to use this camp to “introduce these players to what it’s like to be part of the national team.” That means meritocracy, and it means preparing a squad to achieve a result on game day. As much as the low stakes Sunday left many wanting to see a more attacking approach or a turn in the spotlight for some of Sarachan’s younger, uncapped players, the manager obviously decided to play it safer.
The 4-1-4-1, which was similar to the set-up the USA used in November’s 1-1 draw in Portugal, featured just two senior newcomers (defenders Matt Polster and Ike Opara, who’s 28) and a midfield absent a creative spark. The central core of Wil Trapp, Cristian Roldan and Tyler Adams worked hard, created turnovers and moved the ball effectively in deeper spots but lacked a connection to forward C.J. Sapong. There’s no playmaker in that group. And wingers Gyasi Zardes and Jordan Morris aren’t really wingers.
The USA’s attack depended mostly on slipping or lofting longer balls into the channels, and hoping Sapong or one of the outside midfielders would be able to meet it and create a chance. Sharpness and quality in the offensive third was lacking, however, and it wasn’t until Sarachan loosened the reins that the hosts got more promising looks at goal.
Sarachan clearly was willing to take a few more risks in the second half, which is often looser in friendlies featuring six potential substitutions. Kelyn Rowe and Paul Arriola came on after the intermission for Zardes and Sapong (which pushed Morris to his natural position up front), and Juan Agudelo entered for Roldan with about 20 minutes remaining. The USA had its best chances of the game during the second stanza, but couldn’t convert. It’s easy to wonder what might’ve been if Sarachan had been bolder at kickoff.
The Americans were let off the hook
Bosnia was the more dangerous side Sunday night, but a team under new coach Robert Prosinečki that included only six capped players also struggled in front of goal. The darting and daring runs of midfielder Luka Menalo were the highlight. The 21-year-old plays for Bosnia club Široki Brijeg, and he signaled he’d be a danger after beating Polster and Zardes in the 29th minute (Opara took care of the low, dangerous cross).
Menalo should’ve put Bosnia up in the 43rd. Hamid’s wayward attempt to build out of the back was intercepted by the visitors’ Tomislav Tomić, whose cross bounced off U.S. defender Walker Zimmerman. Menalo was there, but Hamid reacted quickly, made himself enormous and got a leg to the Bosnian’s shot. It was the sort of save Hamid made routinely at D.C. United and which he hopes will earn him minutes at Denmark’s first-place club.
Menalo tried to make up for the miss in the 52nd, when he was fouled by Zimmerman in the penalty area. The U.S. had a grievance, since Menalo pushed Trapp moments before Zimmerman interfered. But the first foul went uncalled, and the Philadelphia Union’s Haris Medunjanin, by far Bosnia’s most experienced player, stopped up to take the spot kick. Perhaps that was a mistake, since he likely was the only one on the roster familiar with the 12-yard heroics of Hamid’s halftime replacement, Columbus Crew playoff hero Zack Steffen.
Medunjanin tried to hit the inside left netting—a spot Steffen wouldn’t reach. He hit the post instead.
The Bosnians managed 12 shots, but put only two on target. They’ll want a few of those chances back.
Few obvious statements made before March
Sarachan is expected to lead the USA into the March FIFA window, when the national team likely will play two friendlies in Europe. It’ll be the first time since taking over for Bruce Arena that Sarachan truly has the entire player pool at his disposal. Based on Sunday’s performance, there weren’t many from this group of January campers, which didn’t include U.S. veterans or players based in Europe, who improved their stock significantly.
Hamid and Steffen already are in the picture considering the state of flux among the program’s goalkeepers. Opara was by far the strongest defender Sunday night, but his age makes him unlikely to be a factor deep into the next cycle.
Trapp plays a position in which the national team has depth, but he arguably was the USA’s best player Sunday. He’s got obvious soccer smarts, is a good passer and at 25, should be entering his prime. He should remain on Sarachan's radar. Adams, 18, certainly will as well, but it didn't appear he was set up to succeed against Bosnia.
Morris’s speed and ability to find threatening pockets behind a back four or between the center and outside backs remain an asset. His touch let him down a couple times Sunday, but some of that can be written off as the result of preseason. He’ll remain a U.S. staple.
Sapong’s effort is immense and he did well trying to find ways to create some havoc without much support—as he did against Portugal—but like Opara, his age (29), could be a factor. Arriola and Rowe also injected a bit of welcome creativity once they entered. Both have qualities that should be nurtured by Sarachan, or whomever eventually replaces him.