The January friendlies are always a little weird. Take, for example, the USA playing Serbia today. The Eagles are currently second in their qualifying group for Russia 2018, and are as yet undefeated. If you watch football early on Saturday morning, you know their best players - Ivanović, Tošić, Matić, Tadić - and play a muscular, fluid style. They face a homestanding American side who needs desperately to find a rhythm in advance of some absolutely crucial World Cup qualifiers in March. Could be great, right?
Ehhhhxcept the men wearing red won’t be the guys who are winning those games, because we’re nowhere near a FIFA international date here. So instead we’re going to see some dudes that even Matt Doyle isn’t hard-core enough to nerd-scout through the internet. Don’t expect these underdog Serbs to go easy, either - Serbia’s currently a place that world footballer union FIFPRO says players should avoid during the current transfer window, saying it is “an increasingly lawless environment.” In other words, they’ll be desperate to impress.
For the Americans, this is the first chapter of Bruce II: Da Brucing. One of the more interesting aspects of Arena’s second tenure has been a newfound willingness to let the media folks around the national team tell better stories. The openness has in turn allowed average folks to see just why Arena is such a successful coach - how he is both warm and direct, and very focused in a quietly distracted way. And he’s deliberately downplayed his role going forward, saying he’s here to just right the ship and put a fit, motivated team on the field. But you know that there’s nothing Arena would like to do more than pick up the same player pool that Klinsmann left at the foot of the Hex and win the whole damned thing.
USA v Serbia, 3 p.m. CST • ESPN2, UniMás, UDN, WatchESPN
The main local interest for Chicagoans is the likely outing for new Fire man Dax McCarty. Expect to see McCarty lined up in the middle next to Michael Bradley, playing a role identical to the one he’s expected to play next to Juninho with CF97 - the furthest midfielder back, the pessimist, the snuffer-of-small-hopes. If the camera stays wide enough, notice how intently Dax maps the field around him, how much of his time is spent maintaining an accurate version of that map. If the camera’s focused too closely on the ball, you’ll mostly see him in little flashes, keeping possession ticking with clean, simple passes or knifing in to win the ball and releasing it quickly.
Just don’t get hurt, Dax.
Adam Whittaker Snavely* on SB Nation compatriot site Stars and Stripes forever expects the USA to come out in a compact 4-2-3-1 and really compress play. Bruce does love a good old 4-4-2, so there’s a chance we see that shape, too. The main difference between the two would be the loss of Sacha Kljestan in favor of Jordan Morris, so switching between the two shapes is possible as well.
The recent trend of USA’s very top talent coming home to play in MLS means that this January-camp roster boasts a little more firepower than normal - virtually everyone in the attacking group of six will be a legitimate USA first-teamer. MLS hasn’t paid the same premium for American defensive talent, though, so the defensive starters aren’t here - no John Brooks, no Geoff Cameron. Graham Zusi’s been working on a career makeover as a right back, so that could be … interesting.
A final word
The kickoff will take place at 3 p.m., and will do so as millions of Americans once again flood into public spaces to demand recognition of our traditions of openness. They will do this in rebuke of a presidential authority whose revealed malevolence is outside our experience. No one will blame you if you miss this game. Nothing will be finally decided today on the pitch. RESIST.
*Who somehow did not become the antagonist in a series of children’s novels set in Victorian-era Liverpool