If the USA didn’t take a step forward Tuesday in its fourth friendly of year, at least it stopped a backward slide.
Yes, the Americans again gave up a lead, as they have repeatedly since the World Cup, yet despite playing 10 against 11 for much of the second half they were able to hold onto a 1-1 tie with Switzerland Tuesday in Zurich.
Brek Shea’s free kick seconds before the halftime whistle provided a 1-0 lead. Switzerland equalized with a goal by Valentin Stocker in the 80th minute, about 12 minutes after referee Luca Bandi sent off Jozy Altidore after the U.S. forward committed a foul in midfield and quickly received a second caution for dissent. The Americans hadn’t held an edge in possession before Altidore’s double dose of dumb, but looked effective and threatening going forward much of the time.
Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann reverted to a diamond midfield formation he had unveiled shortly before the 2014 World Cup, and several players stepped up their game from dismal showings last week in a 3-2 loss to Denmark in Aarhus. Plummeting in the opposite direction was Altidore, who labored futilely through much of the game before being dismissed, though it was his diagonal ball to the right flank that freed up Alejandro Bedoya to cut back a ball that Michael Bradley belted over the crossbar from close range.
Unknown is whether Clint Dempsey, who missed both games because of a hamstring injury, will be available in two weeks to face Mexico in San Antonio. Altidore’s absence leaves a big hole and though Gyasi Zardes played up top rather than in a wide midfield role as he had against Denmark, he didn’t do a lot to strengthen his status. Rubio Rubin’s quiet game against the Danes leaves his situation, at least with the senior national team, cloudy as well. He's also eligible to play with the U-20s this summer in New Zealand and U-23s in the fall in Olympic qualifying.
The jury is still out at Shea as a left back, as his positioning and defensive abilities need extensive grooming, but at least he’s producing offensively. Against the Swiss, before he curled a free kick into the top corner for his second excellent goal of 2015, he hit a pair of good crosses from the left side, one of which dropped between the Swiss centerbacks for Alejandro Bedoya to head on frame. Shea threaded passes up the sideline and also angled balls inside for Bradley.
In the first half, Shea did a reasonably good job containing attacks down his side launched by Gokhan Inler and Stephan Lichsteiner, and there were more good passes than bad. He connected a few times with left mid Alfredo Morales and was always conscious of opponents trying to slip up the flank behind him. He didn’t always react quickly enough to contain them but least he wasn’t caught sleeping.
Shea was tested more in the second half, when catalyst Xherdan Shaqiri shifted to his side of the field and substitute Granit Xhaka unhinged the U.S. back line a few times. Yet he seemed in better sync with his teammates, relied on holding mid Danny Williams as a reliable outlet when necessary and infused the U.S. with a good dose of energy.
Greg Garza started at left back against Denmark, but Shea got the start in Zurich when Fabian Johnson was a late scratch because of illness, and gives head coach Jurgen Klinsmann a lot to ponder heading into the summer. Johnson is far more reliable defensively; Klinsmann can always shift Shea back to a left midfield spot and let the two players sort out the attacking nuances. But Klinsmann loves moving around players to test them and if Shea continues to play left back for Orlando City, he could be seeing regular time in that spot for club and country throughout the year.
The range and intensity of Williams, playing the demanding anchor role at the bottom of a midfield diamond, buttressed the middle solidly until Altidore’s red card enabled the Swiss to find gaps and thread balls into the spaces. For years, Kyle Beckerman has been the fulcrum of Real Salt Lake’s diamond midfield, though Klinsmann used Beckerman and Jermaine Jones together at the World Cup rather than deploying one of them as the lone anchor.
Williams isn’t playing top-division club ball, in fact, Reading isn’t anywhere close to earning promotion to the Premier League. Yet he covered a lot of ground against the Swiss, and while he didn’t push forward much himself played balls into good spots for the wide mids and Bradley to work into the attacking third.
If Klinsmann sticks to his plan of using Jones in the back line, he’ll need to fill that gap in midfield. Williams just turned 26 and could be a viable option for Beckerman, who turns 33 in a few weeks. RSL has changed its formation as well and so the veteran could be juggling several changes to his game.
The disappointing showings against Chile and Denmark, during which the Americans scored four goals and allowed six, have been followed by improved performances against Panama (a 2-0 win) and a tie against the Swiss. There won’t be any preparation game for Mexico, and the pattern of second-half fadeouts will have to be corrected.
Klinsmann's experimentation is aimed for the Gold Cup, yet none of the next three opponents -- Mexico, the Netherlands, and Germany -- are ideal testing grounds. At least against the Swiss, there were encouraging signs of a team playing as one.