Due to the unique schedule of the recent World Cup, the road to 2026 has an unconventional start during the traditional January camp. Temporary head coach Anthony Hudson takes charge of the somewhat inexperienced crop of players hoping to impress and get a jump ahead of a busy schedule for the United States Men’s National Team. The first opponent is Serbia, which is embarking on a mini-tour that will be capped off by a friendly against Mexico. The fixture is set for the recently renamed BMO Stadium, a 22,000-seat venue located in the Exposition Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.
This is the second all-time meeting between the two nations, the previous result a scoreless draw in January of 2017. Ranked 21st in the FIFA World Rankings, Serbia reached the 2022 World Cup by finishing atop UEFA’s Group A with an undefeated 6-0-2 record that included victories over Portugal and Ireland. In Qatar, the Оrlovi (Eagles) landed at the bottom of Group G with one point, losing to Brazil (2-0), drawing with Cameroon (3-3), and falling to Switzerland (3-2).
Dragan Stojković was appointed to the manager role in March of 2021, weeks ahead of the start of the previous World Cup campaign. He enjoyed a long playing career and is considered one of the top players in Red Star Belgrade’s history. Following retirement, the Niš native worked as an executive before heading into coaching, enjoying long tenures at Nagoya Grampus and Guangzhou R&F (now known as Guangzhou City F.C.). His current contract reportedly lasts through the rest of the year, with extension likely influenced by the performance in upcoming Euro 2024 qualifying.
: | SQUAD LIST pic.twitter.com/5I92AVbLjE— Fudbalski savez Srbije | FA of Serbia (@FSSrbije) January 11, 2023
For the friendlies scheduled outside of an international window, Stojković named a highly-inexperienced 17-player roster. With fewer than ten combined caps among the group, several young talents are expected to make their senior debuts. Six clubs from the domestic Serbian SuperLiga provide 14 call-ups, while Major League Soccer is home to the other three inclusions.
GOALKEEPERS (2): Đorđe Petrović (New England Revolution), Dragan Rosić (Radnički Niš)
DEFENDERS (5): Ranko Veselinović (Vancouver Whitecaps), Nemanja Petrović (TSC Bačka Topola), Marko Mijailović (Voždovac), Nemanja Stojić (TSC Bačka Topola), Filip Damjanović (Voždovac)
MIDFIELDERS (8): Veljko Simić (Vojvodina), Luka Ilić (TSC Bačka Topola), Mirko Topić (Vojvodina), Luka Bijelović (Spartak Subotica), Marko Ivezić (Voždovac), Vladimir Lučić (Čukarički), Miloš Pantović (Voždovac), Nikola Petković (Čukarički)
FORWARDS (2): Dejan Joveljić (LA Galaxy), Nikola Štulić (Radnički Niš)
Stojković typically deploys a 3-5-2 formation, although the seemingly thrown-together nature of the roster could force alterations. Serbia tends to maintain possession and play more passes than the opponent, incrementally moving the ball up the field through the wings. The team can be expected to create more opportunities and win more 50/50 battles than the opponent. Totally Football Analysis notes that “the tactics demand a certain level of consistent energy,” manifesting in forcing turnovers with interceptions.
Đorđe (Djordje) Petrović should receive the start at goalkeeper, having already enjoyed his senior debut in a friendly against the Dominican Republic. After moving over from FK Čukarički last April, the 23-year-old made 23 appearances for the New England Revolution, earning team MVP honors and signing a three-year contract extension. Standing at 6’4”, he emerged as one of MLS’ top shot-stoppers and is active when coming off his line to handle crosses. His first instinct is to throw the ball, attempting to quickly move into the counter-attack.
One of the centre-back spots is likely to be occupied by Ranko Veselinović, who is entering his fourth season with Vancouver Whitecaps FC. The 23-year-old has a natural affinity for clearing out the ball in a variety of ways while also making the correct decisions in the build-up. Nemanja Stojić of TSC Bačka Topola plays an error-free game and is a strong aerial presence. His long, driven passes, while occasionally speculative, find wingers and spark the counter-attack. Voždovac’s Marko Mijailović can play the hybrid third role, experienced on both the inside and outside of the defensive line. He does some of his best work on the ground, whether distributing tackles or throwing his body in the way of incoming shots.
Nemanja Petrović patrols the wing, providing two-way energy up and down the touch-line. He is always looking to facilitate teammates, whether aiding in possession or pushing into the final third to hit a cross. While normally on the left wing of the formation, Miloš Pantović lined up on the other side when competing with the Serbia U-21 team during Euro qualifiers. The Voždovac attacker has scored six goals this season but is still willing to track back and get involved in the defensive third.
Luka Ilić (23, CAM) with 2 goals tonight. Once upon a time signed by Man City alongside his brother, Ivan (Verona)— Serbian Football Scout (@SerbFootyScout) October 8, 2022
Had a hard fall from grace. Eredivisie, Ligue 1, back to the SuperLiga. But look at this goal. Magical touch.
Talent was never the issue..pic.twitter.com/Br6lBtsxB5
At 6’3”, defensive midfielder Marko Ivezić has the size to drop deep and provide additional coverage on the back line. He plants himself ahead of the box, waiting for the right moment to step to an attacker and dispense an aggressive challenge. The other half of the deeper pairing is likely to be Mirko Topić, another tall and rangy shutdown player. His ability to cover ground is particularly useful when tracking to the side of the field to overwhelm wingers. Following moves to Manchester City and Troyes, Luka Ilić is attempting to refocus his career while on loan at TSC. The 23-year-old can put the ball on a dime and is devastatingly clever when darting his way through opponents, while also being capable of whipping in a left-footed shot from distance. One of the squad’s relative veterans, the speedy Veljko Simić, could also feature, providing a willingness to take on opponents from an advanced position. Six goals, mostly opportunistic poaches, have him atop FK Vojvodina’s scoring chart.
Dejan Joveljić, an inside-outside attacker born in Bosnia and Herzegovina, should be one of the strikers at the top of the formation. He’s spent the last two seasons with the LA Galaxy and contributed 15 goals in 38 total appearances last year. His speed is useful in disrupting opposing defense, which is balanced by strong passing. The likely partner is Nikola Štulić, who is enjoying a strong season in the domestic league with Radnički Niš, finding the back of the net 12 times. The 21-year-old target player operates centrally and buzzes around the box, looking to be played in by teammates or pounce on a rebound.
Both nations come into this friendly with inexperienced rosters, although, on paper, the USMNT has a substantially stronger squad. January friendlies are usually a bit slower and stodgier as the lack of chemistry manifests in just enough miscommunication to disrupt the fluid nature of the sport’s timing. The hosts are expected to win, but the margin of victory is difficult to predict.
The match is scheduled for Wednesday, January 25th at 10:00 p.m. Eastern, 7:00 p.m. Pacific. Viewing options include HBO Max, Peacock, Universo, and FUBO TV (free trial).