U.S. men's national team faces first test of 2017 with friendly against Serbia

If you needed further proof the Sounders’ defense was a curtain of titanium in 2016 (you didn’t, really), then feast thine eyes on the 23-man U.S. Men’s National Team roster for its friendly against Serbia on Sunday (1 p.m. PT; ESPN2, UniMas, UDN | MATCHCENTER).

Newly-minted U.S. coach Bruce Arena, back for his second tour of duty, is about to patrol the sideline in his first match back on Sunday. The occasion itself may not be all that important - it’s a friendly in the midst of a four-month World Cup qualifying layoff - but its significance shouldn’t be missed. Arena represents a wholesale change in direction from former coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s reign, and how Arena approaches his lineup should give us a few good indicators as to what to expect over the coming months.

And that could mean a hefty dose of Sounders in the red, white and blue.

Arena whittled his roster down to its final 23-man shape on Friday in advance of Sunday, and three Sounders made the cut. There were initially four on the first call-in, but goalkeeper Stefan Frei was forced home early due to an injury. That left defenders Chad Marshall and Brad Evans as well as supersonic forward Jordan Morris in the final group.

Given the unpredictability packaged into the process of a coach’s first game at the tiller, it’s not quite clear what to expect in the starting XI on Sunday. Arena’s always heavily favored a 4-4-2, both as a national team coach and as an MLS coach. He could swap that out, but at least based on his roster selection it looks like a 4-4-2 all the way.

If that is indeed that case, Morris is probably the most likely to start.

Arena ultimately only included three forwards: Morris, Juan Agudelo and Jozy Altidore. There’s no reason to think Altidore still isn’t a deadlock No. 1 option up top, and Agudelo hasn’t been with the U.S. consistently in years. This of course has always been an MLS-heavy camp, considering European players are smack in the middle of the year and MLS is in its offseason. Bobby Wood is probably still competing for time with Morris, but at least in the construct of this camp I have to think Morris is just behind Altidore in Arena’s reckoning. And if Arena does go with a 4-4-2, that means Morris starts.

Marshall and Evans - especially Evans - have something of a tougher fight for playing time on their hands.

Arena’s game of center back musical chairs only leaves two seats for three men: Marshall, Walker Zimmerman and Steve Birnbaum. There’s an argument that Marshall is in the best form of the three - he certainly has the most experience - but Birnbaum and Zimmerman are both younger and project deeper into not only this cycle but the next. It wouldn’t at all be a surprise to see Marshall win a starting spot with the national team for the first time in more than seven years, especially given Arena’s predilection to throw age out the window and simply roll with the hot hand.

Evans’ fight for a starting spot is murkier, and unarguably a lot tougher. Probably the biggest surprise of Arena’s first camp is how he’s morphed (or attempted to morph) Graham Zusi into a right back. The longtime right midfielder had a fairly prominent role as a wide midfielder in the last World Cup cycle, and he’s never been considered anything else for Peter Vermes at Sporting KC. 

Arena’s taken a different tack. Zusi’s listed amongst the defenders in the roster release, and there is no other place for him than right back. And while Evans might’ve moonlighted as a center back at times over the last two years, there is probably not much of a question where Arena (and where Klinsmann, by extension) values him. And that, too, is at right back.

Evans has done well in that position over the years, and like Marshall, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him grace the XI. Arena clearly likes him. But he’s duking it out for time with a pet project Arena probably has at the top of his to-do list. This is what camps are for, anyway; mixing and matching pieces in a way you can’t justify in the matches that really matter. And if Arena is ever going to test out his theory that Zusi’s second life as a national team player is as a right back, it’s at this very moment. If that is indeed the case, Evans would be the one left in the cold.

There’s nothing certain about that, of course. Zusi’s never been a right back as a professional, and the experiment could turn out to be a dud. If that’s the case, Evans will be the versatile inflatable life raft, as he’s often been for the Sounders over the past eight years. If there’s anything Evans does better than almost anyone in MLS, it’s form-fitting his skill set into a new position to fit the need of the wider team. Arena will use him to that end if necessary.

And if Arena’s XI look like this on Sunday? Well, don’t let anyone say the Sounders aren’t turning out players for the national team.