Tuesday’s game against 12th-ranked Switzerland offers the U.S. national team—winners of just two of the 11 matches it’s played since defeating Ghana at the World Cup—an opportunity to compete on coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s preferred stage. To reach the next level one must meet the next level, Klinsmann claims, preferably on its turf. And while the Swiss aren’t considered a global power, they’ve cemented their status as a team just outside the European elite—one that’s reached the round of 16 in two of the past three World Cups and boasts a roster full of players who compete in the German and Italian leagues, among others.
A U.S. victory at Zurich’s Stadion Letzigrund would be noticed—perhaps celebrated—and may take a bit of the heat off an American team that’s struggled to find its post-World Cup rhythm. But Tuesday’s friendly likely won’t represent a step toward establishing that elusive continuity, regardless of the result.
Some of that is due to circumstances beyond Klinsmann’s control. But it’s also the result of the manager’s preference for experimentation, his desire for depth and versatility and his reluctance to allow anyone to feel settled in their role.
As July’s Gold Cup approaches and as challenging exhibitions against Mexico, Netherlands and Germany loom, the U.S. remains in flux.
The roster has changed even since last weekend’s loss in Denmark. Goal scorer Aron Jóhannsson, whose potential partnership with striker Jozy Altidore was put under a welcome spotlight thanks to Clint Dempsey’s bum hamstring, is out with an infected toe. Jóhannsson was replaced on the roster by Stanford University’s Jordan Morris and could be replaced on the field by Rubio Rubin, the 19-year-old FC Utrecht forward who’s played twice for Klinsmann’s team.
The manager told reporters Monday that he expects a few changes from the 11 who started the 3-2 loss in Aarhus. Despite being outplayed and out-possessed, that U.S. group was ahead by a goal when Klinsmann started substituting more liberally (a common friendly tactic) Those potential changes would be par for Klinsmann's course, however. He continues to want his players to learn to adapt to different systems, partnerships and environments instead of getting comfortable or complacent.
While newly minted international center back Jermaine Jones is just returning from sports hernia surgery, Klinsmann last week opted to leave veterans Geoff Cameron, Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler with their clubs in order to take a look at more defensive combinations. Michael Orozco returned to the fold and World Cup right back Fabian Johnson played in left midfield. Brek Shea, now supposedly a left back for club and country, relieved Johnson in the second half.
Alejandro Bedoya, typically a right midfielder for the U.S., played alongside (or behind) Bradley in the middle. And Gyasi Zardes, a promising forward with the LA Galaxy, started on the right wing.
The results weren’t surprising. The U.S. had trouble maintaining its shape when Denmark had the ball and rarely had positive passing options once it turned over.
"You saw on [Denmark’s] first goal, obviously Gyasi was not experienced in that position, finds himself suddenly in the box at the six-yard line and he actually kept the play on[side] when the ball is played through," Klinsmann told reporters. "Not his mistake you know, but they kind of understand more and more that they're all connected."
This weekend, Bedoya told ESPN that he’s “never really played as a No. 6,” referring to the defensive midfield role he filled last week. "It's a learning curve whenever you play a new position you're not accustomed to, and at the international level, the game is totally different. But I think at times during the match I did things all right.”
Klinsmann is convinced his players, his team and American soccer will benefit from exposure to challenging and diverse experiences. The result is, for now, a lack of certainty about who plays best where and which system or lineup represents the most appropriate fit. Beyond Altidore’s rugged opportunism up top, Bradley’s tireless contributions in the middle and Nick Rimando’s steady play in goal, there isn’t much to bank on with the current roster.
But that means there are opportunities available.
Perhaps Danny Williams can be the No. 6 that Klinsmann is looking for, one who slows the opposition and gives Bradley the chance to get forward. Maybe John Brooks and Ventura Alvarado are the future of the U.S. back four. Maybe Miguel Ibarra can pass and move and help the U.S. midfield manage more possession. Perhaps DeAndre Yedlin will blossom with additional reps.
While so many recent friendlies have raised more questions, they always offer the foundation for an answer or two.
– Brian Straus
This past summer, the Swiss navigated through a World Cup group including France, Ecuador and Honduras to reach the round of 16. There, Switzerland, whose World Cup seed was a point of contention entering the draw, fell to eventual runner-up Argentina in extra time 1-0.
Coached by Vladimir Petkovic–who replaced legendary German coach Ottmar Hitzfeld after the World Cup–Switzerland struggled at the onset of Euro 2016 qualifying, dropping its first two Group E matches to England and Slovenia. Since then, it's been three comfortable wins in a row over the likes of San Marino, Lithuania and, just last week, Estonia.
On an individual level, Switzerland boasts some fine talent.
Most notable among the upper-echelon Swiss players is Xherdan Shaqiri, the 23-year-old winger who currently plays at Inter Milan after struggling to carve a niche at star-stacked Bayern Munich.
The Bundesliga is home to a number of Switzerland's chief individuals, though, with fullback Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg); midfielders Granit Xhaka (Borussia Monchengladbach) and Valentin Stocker (Hertha Berlin); and forwards Josip Drmic (Bayer Leverkusen) and Haris Seferovic (Eintracht Frankfurt) all plying their trade in Germany.
Among those joining Shaqiri, who set up all three goals in the 3-0 win over Estonia, in Serie A are veteran defender Stephan Lichtsteiner (Juventus) and Switzerland captain Gokhan Inler (Napoli).
One to watch for the future is 18-year-old Cameroon-born FC Basel uncapped forward Breel Embolo, who was called in for this match. He has five goals in 17 league matches for Basel and tallied in a Champions League win over Ludogorets in the fall.
With the qualifier vs. Estonia just days ago and the opportunity to experiment a bit while resting some regulars ahead of their return to league games this weekend, Petkovic could stray from his top-choice lineup in Zurich.
– Avi Creditor
GOALKEEPERS: Cody Cropper (Southampton), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake), William Yarbrough (Club Leon)
DEFENDERS: Ventura Alvarado (Club America), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Timmy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt), Greg Garza (Club Tijuana), Michael Orozco (Puebla), Tim Ream (Bolton Wanderers), Brek Shea (Orlando City SC), DeAndre Yedlin (Tottenham)
MIDFIELDERS: Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Julian Green (Hamburg), Miguel Ibarra (Minnesota United FC), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Monchengladbach), Alfredo Morales (Ingolstadt), Danny Williams (Reading), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)
FORWARDS: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Jordan Morris (Stanford University), Rubio Rubin (Utrecht)
GOALKEEPERS: Yann Sommer (Borussia Moenchengladbach), Roman Buerki (Freiburg), Marwin Hitz (Augsburg)
DEFENDERS: Stephan Lichtsteiner (Juventus), Johan Djourou (Hamburger SV), Steve von Bergen (Young Boys), Fabian Schaer (Basel), Francois Moubandje (Toulouse), Fabian Lustenberger (Hertha Berlin), Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg), Silvan Widmer (Udinese)
MIDFIELDERS: Valon Behrami (Hamburger SV), Blerim Dzemaili (Galatasaray), Gokhan Inler (Napoli), Gelson Fernandes (Rennes), Fabian Frei (Basel), Pajtim Kasami (Olympiakos), Granit Xhaka (Borussia Monchengladbach), Valentin Stocker (Hertha Berlin), Xherdan Shaqiri (Inter Milan)
FORWARDS: Josip Drmic (Bayer Leverkusen), Haris Seferovic (Eintracht Frankfurt), Admir Mehmedi (Freiburg), Breel Embolo (Basel)