The United States had a promising performance against Jamaica that produced the first goal of the second Bruce Arena era, and we learned a lot more about the members of the January camp participants than we did in the drab draw against Serbia.
So, with January camp coming to a close, who shined, who struggled, and who made a case for a spot in the upcoming World Cup qualifiers?
1. Sebastian Lletget is just as good out wide as centrally
There’s been a hard-hammered narrative that Sebastian Lletget is at his best in the middle of the field. With the #10 role occupied by Benny Feilhaber (or Sascha Kljestan recently), Lletget has been deployed out wide, first as a substitute against Serbia where he shined in limited action, and now on Friday against Jamaica.
He was quite good. He saw plenty of action down the left, and both passed and crossed very well. While he can improve on his ability to beat opponents, he drew a healthy number of fouls and his presence was important in a formation with a wide focus.
As it is with any of these performances, it’s important to remember it came against a 2nd-tier Jamaican squad. Will it translate to first-choice CONCACAF opponents in a do-or-die World Cup qualification setting? That’s on Bruce Arena to decide.
2. The Benny Feilhaber vs. Sascha Kljestan battle has gained steam
With Jermaine Jones suspended for the next World Cup qualifier, there has been plenty of speculation of who will start in his place and who will be added to the roster. Sascha Kljestan seemed to have a hold on a roster spot, either in the starting role or just behind it. That may not be such a given anymore.
Feilhaber looked very bright running point at the top of the midfield in Bruce Arena’s 4-1-3-2, and proved he can both cross skillfully and carry the ball into the final third. He was a danger in the opening 20 minutes, assisting the big chance in the 7th minute where McCarty headed just over, and challenging Jamacian players in their own half when defending.
On the flip side, as the first half wore on, Feilhaber featured some Bradley-like giveaways in midfield, but he redeemed it all with his beautiful assist on the Morris opener, as his silky movement on the ball unlocked the Jamaican defense. Overall, Benny may not be a player Arena wants to experiment with knowing there’s so much on the line, but he’s certainly given the U.S. coach a reason to keep him on the list for the future should the USMNT repair its qualification status quickly.
3. The creativity remains slightly deficient
The United States held much of the possession against Jamaica, with the back line hardly tested. However, there was very little in a creative sense that gave the U.S. good chances, and the few opportunities they did have were not taken with a ruthless nature. Morris had a good break on the header from Agudelo, but failed to put it away. McCarty got his head to a corner early – as he does so well – but put it over. Overall, the U.S. seemed all too reliant on pumping crosses into the box from out wide, partly a product of a width-focused formation played by Arena, but also due to a lack of other options.
The United States still lacks a player who can truly unlock an opposition defense on his own, maybe outside of Clint Dempsey, whose health remains a question mark moving forward. Feilhaber showed promise early, but he gave away possession too much. Morris tried at one point to take on four yellow shirts and failed miserably. Alexi Lalas on Twitter referred to it “unproductive but not lethargic,” which is probably an accurate description. There wasn’t much for Arena to praise in the final third, and that’s somewhat concerning considering the U.S. needs wins not draws in its immediate qualifying future.
The goal was a very nice moment to assuage the fears of many watching, but the lack of action in the opposition penalty area is still cause for slight concern.
Honorable mention: Graham Zusi is no longer a national team caliber player
The man to get the captain’s armband tonight had one of the poorer performances of the United States group, and it’s not at all surprising. His crosses were not useful, and more importantly, he was exposed at the back the few times he was tested. Most notably, in the first half he was straight up burned by Cory Burke on the chance that should have been a goal for Jamaica had Williams not horribly missed. Zusi has no speed tracking back, and would be even more exposed against a team that played less centrally than Jamaica played. We can appreciate Zusi’s past contributions to the national team, which are significant, but he should not be deployed at right-back in a meaningful game. Unfortunately, the options are limited for Bruce Arena, meaning he might see more time by default. That would not go well.
Honorable mention: Dax McCarty has a lot to offer
In my personal opinion, Dax McCarty was the best player on the field. He had five unsuccessful passes in 62 minutes of play (Michael Bradley, his substitute, had four – a topic for another day), and distributed well the whole game. McCarty proved he can carry over his set-piece prowess to the national team as well, and was quality in the attack. With Jamaica attacking through the middle of the field in their few chances forward, McCarty was solid defensively as well, helping the back line keep an untested clean sheet. This was a very good day for Dax’s chances moving forward.