Despite owning over 61% of possession and connecting a healthy share of their passes, the United States could not break down Serbia, with the two sides settling for a 0-0 draw in San Diego today. The USMNT, with Bruce Arena back at the helm for the first time since 2006, had their moments but ultimately struggled in the final third. Serbia, despite having less of the ball, created as many dangerous looks as their hosts on the day.
D.C. United center back Steve Birnbaum played the full 90 minutes as the right-sided center back in Arena’s 4231. As part of an approach based on hoarding possession, Arena tasked defensive midfielder Michael Bradley with dropping deep between Birnbaum and Chad Marshall to start US attacking moves. He also had the task of aiding Graham Zusi in the Sporting Kansas City midfielder’s first-ever national team appearance at right back.
The first look of the game went to the US, with Birnbaum getting loose to head a 7th minute free kick swung in by Sacha Kljestan towards goal. Unfortunately, it hit his marker in the back, and Serbia managed to clear the loose ball.
The visitors began to take some control of the game, and just before the half’s midway point they were robbed of a penalty kick by poor officiating. Greg Garza misjudged a bouncing ball on the very edge of the US box, missing it and clipping Sasa Jovanovic. Referee Kevin Morrison did call the foul, but said the contact had happened outside the box. Replays clearly showed that this was incorrect, allowing the US to dodge a major bullet early.
The USMNT started to push back, with a lightning counter-attack just needing one more touch inside the six-yard box to give the Americans a lead. Darlington Nagbe, who had moments before had a 1-on-1 with Nikola Cirkovic only for the FK Vozdovac defender to win the ball cleanly, nearly broke through with a curling 28th minute shot after Michael Bradley had picked him out.
Ten minutes later, Nagbe went even closer with a very similar effort. Following a Birnbaum long ball that landed between Sacha Kljestan and Jozy Altidore, a quick exchange between Altidore and Jermaine Jones opened up space for Jones to find Nagbe. The Portland Timbers midfielder cut back onto his right foot, beat goalkeeper Filip Manojlovic, but saw his shot bounce inches past the far post.
The US made just one sub at halftime - Sebastian Lletget came in for Jones in the linking midfield role - and nearly scored seconds into the second half. Altidore, however, couldn’t slot the ball underneath Manojlovic from a tight angle. The game’s next chance also came from the US, with Nagbe doing well to open up space on the wing for Lletget, who peeled wide before crossing in. Kljestan arrived late to float a header in that went just wide while Manojlovic scrambled to his left.
Overall, both teams saw promising moves break down due to a need for one extra runner or a missed touch at a crucial moment. Former D.C. United attacker Chris Pontius, after years of offseason injuries robbing him of the chance, made his USMNT debut in the 65th minute, replacing Philadelphia Union teammate Alejandro Bedoya on the right wing. Jorge Villafaña got his first cap just a few minutes later, coming in at left back for Greg Garza.
Rimando was grateful for what turned out to be an easy save after a cross from the left forced Zusi - who had an uneven 90 minutes, though he did improve in the second half - to interfere just enough, preventing a clean shot on what would have otherwise been a sitter. At the other end, a ball over the top in the 79th minute saw Pontius keep the play alive before pushing a low ball into the middle towards fellow substitute Jordan Morris, but Serbia managed to scrape the ball away just in time.
As the final ten minutes began, Serbia began to clearly tire, and the USMNT looked for a game-winning goal. However, they still struggled to play at a quick enough tempo to unlock the organized defense from a visiting side that entered the day with just six caps in their entire squad. The US often settled for long balls or crosses from deep positions as a result.
Nonetheless, the game opened up in the final moments, with both teams getting a great chance in the 89th minute. Rimando had to make a sharp save from Marko Mrkic after a Lletget giveaway handed Serbia a chance to break in behind. The US went straight up the field, though, with late sub Juan Agudelo finding the ball on his foot inside the box in a great spot only to stall long enough to have it poked away. That deflection rolled right to Pontius, who tried to guide the ball into the lower corner only to see it disappointingly roll a yard wide.
The USMNT gets one more game from this camp, facing Jamaica on Friday in Chattanooga, TN.