The US men’s national team turned in something of a Jekyll-and-Hyde performance in Sunday’s 2-1 friendly loss to Switzerland, matching and occasionally besting the No. 13-ranked team in the world in the first half before losing their grip and surrendering one clear scoring chance after another in the second 45 minutes.
With a Concacaf Nations League semifinal vs. Honduras looming on Thursday, head coach Gregg Berhalter took an optimistic approach in his postgame press conference.
“It was very positive,” said Berhalter. “The attitude of how we want to play, and the positioning and the intention to be very aggressive, very high-pressing, pinning them in, dealing well with balls that came out, that's what I envision this group being able to do.
“Over the course of 90 minutes we lost a bit of that power to be able to do it, but overall I think the guys did a great job. And the game plan was there – we were able to move the ball, create goal-scoring opportunities and really put them in a bunch of trouble. So to me it's positive. I don't love the result, I think we could have gotten a tie in this game, perhaps if the finishing is a little bit better we can even get a win. But the guys did a great effort and it's a great measuring stick.”
The USMNT troubled the Swiss out of the gates with the aggressive pressing posture out of a 4-3-3 formation that has become their favored setup, and took an early lead via the impressive Sebastian Lletget. However their hosts adapted their own tactics after halftime and grew all too comfortable passing through the United States’ ranks as the past week of high-altitude training took its toll down the stretch.
“The first half, we had it pretty under control. I mean, we've had elevation training and we're doing our thing and trying to prepare and we're working hard throughout the week,” said USMNT captain Weston McKennie. “So I think it's not so much of what didn't work, I think it’s just more a little bit heavy on the legs to maintain pressing like we did in the first half throughout the whole game.
“But we'll look back at the video and Gregg will definitely go over with us how we can fix that or how we can pick and choose, I guess, when we want to stay back and let them play in front and when we want to press.”
Led by veterans playing in Europe's top leagues, Switzerland are preparing for a big summer of their own at the UEFA European Championship and are less than two weeks out from their Group A opener vs. Wales, with rugged-looking fixtures against Italy and Turkey to follow.
Their quality rose to the surface after the break as Steven Zuber exploited disorganization in the US defense to tap home a simple winner in the 63rd minute before Breel Embolo ran riot in the latter stages, forcing Ethan Horvath to make some big saves to keep the scoreline from spinning out of control.
“So we definitely lost compactness in the second half,” said Berhalter. “They changed their shape to a 5-3-2 having a central midfielder behind our pressing forward, and we didn't really solve that well. It started to open up space, gave them time on the ball, forced our backline to move back a little bit and that created more space in midfield. When they dropped one of the strikers down also, they started creating the numbers there that we didn't do the best job of dealing with.”
He and his staff have structured this international window to replicate the intense schedules and squad rotation that awaits them in World Cup qualifying later this year, so Thursday’s lineup could look quite different. Berhalter suggested that Sunday’s skilled opponents provided not only a test and a bit of a reality check, but also a model.
“This is a team that has been playing together for a really long time, it's the same group that Switzerland’s had for the last four years, five years. So it's a mature group, it's an older group than us and our guys can look at that as what this team could be in the future,” said the coach.
“When you see the [US] group and you see the potential this group has and see how they can come here without fear and really take the game to Switzerland says a lot about this generation of players. And it's exciting. I think part of my job as a coach is to find the balance between high pressing and stability, and we didn't always have that today, and I'll take responsibility for that. But other than that, these guys are ready to go.”