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USA improves, but indiscipline, late concession lead to Switzerland draw

The U.S. national team faltered late again on Tuesday, settling for a 1-1 draw with 12th-ranked Switzerland in Zurich.

Coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s team took a first-half lead on a gorgeous free kick from a resurgent Brek Shea, but yielded a late equalizer after being reduced to 10 men. Although the Americans are only 2-6-3 since beating Ghana in the World Cup, and although they still can’t hold a lead, there were some good signs at the Stadion Letzigrund as well. Those will feel welcome heading into a difficult stretch set to culminate with July’s CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Here are three thoughts from Tuesday’s friendly:

If only matches were 70 minutes long

A silly red card, followed by a bit of defensive disarray on a Swiss corner, resulted in yet another blown lead for a U.S. squad whose inability to keep the opposition from scoring late goals is stretching statistical credulity.

Tuesday’s box score will show that it was Swiss midfielder Valentin Stocker who forced the visitors to settled for a draw in a game it could have—and perhaps should have—won. But the Americans really had no one to blame but themselves. The players change, but the result remains the same. Perhaps it’s settling into the squad’s DNA.

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Entering the match, the U.S. had yielded 14 goals in the final 15 minutes of its previous 15 games. Since the World Cup, it outscored opponents 10-3 in the first half, and then was outscored 11-1 in the second. In its most recent seven matches, it conceded a goal in the 80th minute seven times.

Some of that, especially in friendlies, will result from frequent second-half substitutions and the subsequent change in defensive chemistry. But it’s also about game management and composure, and that was lacking on Tuesday. Jozy Altidore, who should know far better, was ejected in the 68th minute for clipping a Swiss player from behind then cursing at the Italian referee who whistled the foul.

The hosts poured forward after that, came close on a couple of occasions then pounced when a tiring U.S. botched the marking on an 80th-minute corner kick. Timmy Chandler was asking for an offside call after keeping Switzerland on during the short corner. Meanwhile, the U.S. was left with midfielders Alfredo Morales and DeAndreYedlin to clear the ball from the front of the goal. They failed, and Stocker finished easily.

“When you concede goals, it’s always a series of individual mistakes, lack of concentration, maybe some tactical misunderstanding,” Klinsmann told Fox prior to the game. “And that’s what we corrected. We’ve talked about it and hopefully we can avoid it against Switzerland.”

They couldn’t.

Positive signs in the first half

The late-game misadventures notwithstanding, there was plenty for U.S. fans to like about Tuesday’s showing. Since the World Cup, this has been a team searching for a tactical identity, a system or approach that made the most of its players’ abilities and that didn’t ask too much of a revolving—and evolving—player pool.

Klinsmann struck a nice balance in Zurich. Alejandro Bedoya, who played in central midfield in last week’s ugly loss to Denmark, returned to right midfield, where he’s played most frequently for the U.S. He would have had two first-half assists had Michael Bradley and Gyasi Zardes not missed on open looks.

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Shea was back at left back (where he’s been playing for Orlando City), Zardes moved up front (where he plays for the LA Galaxy) and Danny Williams—a true defensive midfielder—slotted in behind Bradley. Against Denmark, the U.S. midfield lacked defined, comfortable roles. On Tuesday, Williams stayed home in front of the back four. Bradley had room to push up the field, where there were two forwards instead of the one he supported at the World Cup.

And Bedoya and Alfredo Morales, both comfortable with the ball in tight spaces, pinched in to provide the critical passing outlets the U.S. lacked in recent games. Given time and some space to overlap and join the attack, Shea and right back Timmy Chandler did so.

The spacing was good and, without the relentless pressure the U.S. faced against the Danes or late Tuesday against Switzerland, the back four was able to stay relatively compact, cover smartly and step into passing lanes.  When there was the opportunity to counterattack, the U.S. typically had the numbers to do so.

Yes, it all unraveled late. But there were hints of a system that not only fits the team, but which very well may be repeatable as players come and go.

Playing regularly matters

Much is made over where U.S. national teamers earn their paychecks and how much responsibility and security they should have if they hope to enhance their development. A couple U.S. players whose careers may have taken a “step back” in prestige showed well on Tuesday, suggesting that playing regularly—and having an integral role at your club—is critical for national team form.

Shea, finally free from the Stoke City wilderness, had a fine game at left back. While he continues to learn the position, his free kick demonstrated why Klinsmann continues to call him in. He’s capable of moments of brilliance.

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Williams hadn’t played for the U.S. since March 2014. A year earlier, he moved from the Bundesliga to the English second division, where he starts for Reading. He was sound on Tuesday and filled the traditional No. 6 role with composure. That helped his fellow midfielders define their roles as well. With Jermaine Jones now a defender, Kyle Beckerman in his 30s and Bradley preferred in a more advanced role, that key spot could be Williams’ for the taking.

Klinsmann will continue to ask his players to challenge themselves and seek the highest level possible in their careers, and that’s certainly not a bad thing. But “possible” should mean playing regularly. Shea and Williams now are firmly back in the U.S. picture thanks to their moves.