IN A tenure which had previously known only peaks and troughs, Gordon Strachan settled for level ground last night as Scotland drew a match for the first time under his management.
The final international at Hampden before work begins to convert the stadium into a Commonwealth Games venue did not leave a lasting impression as Strachan’s team battled to a largely tepid stalemate with Jurgen Klinsmann’s World Cup-bound USA side.
It was neither a setback nor a step forward for Strachan. There were some positives, with a solid debut in central defence by Brighton captain Gordon Greer just a month short of his 33rd birthday perhaps the most valuable aspect. The Scots lacked incisiveness in the attacking third of the pitch, Steven Fletcher starved of meaningful service and Craig Conway missing their best chance of the night.
With almost a full year between competitive fixtures, Strachan’s biggest problem may be in maintaining the intensity and focus his players displayed during the heartening end to the abortive World Cup qualifying campaign.
This was the first of perhaps half a dozen challenge matches Scotland will undertake before their Euro 2016 bid begins next September and their start to proceedings was certainly as purposeful and energetic as the national coach would have hoped.
The home side’s passing was poised and precise during those opening exchanges as they settled to the task far quicker than the Americans. The first opening fell to Steven Fletcher in the third minute when the Sunderland striker latched on to a poor defensive clearance by Omar Gonzalez and scooped a shot over from the edge of the penalty area.
Fletcher’s inclusion as the front man in Strachan’s favoured 4-2-3-1 set-up had been anticipated, but the selection of Craig Conway on the left of the three advanced midfield players was a surprise.
The Cardiff City winger, currently on loan at Brighton, was a late call-up, but was handed only his second starting appearance for Scotland – his previous one came on his debut against Japan four years ago.
Conway saw plenty of the ball and Scotland’s next opportunity fell to him when another weak header by Gonzalez fell into his path but, like Fletcher, he could not keep his snapshot down. Scotland’s bright start continued when Robert Snodgrass delivered a cute cross with the outside of his left boot to Fletcher whose header drifted off target.
Jurgen Klinsmann’s side gradually began to match the tempo set by their hosts and Jozy Altidore, Fletcher’s Sunderland team-mate, posted the Americans’ first attempt on goal when he volleyed over David Marshall’s crossbar from 18 yards.
It sparked a better spell by the USA and Greer made the first telling contribution of his debut when he showed good awareness to intercept an Altidore cross from the right which would have left Eddie Johnson with a close-range tap-in.
The Scottish defence was then grateful to the haplessness of Gonzalez when the LA Galaxy player executed a horrible fresh air swipe at the ball in the penalty area when a Michael Bradley corner kick found him unmarked in a dangerous position.
With the balance of play now more evenly poised, Charlie Mulgrew caused mild anxiety for USA goalkeeper Tim Howard with a well-struck free kick from around 22 yards which dipped narrowly over the crossbar.
Another Bradley corner at the other end proved menacing for the home side, Alan Hutton coming to the rescue when he nicked the ball off the toes of Altidore on the edge of the six yard box.
Scotland should have made the breakthrough nine minutes before the interval, Conway missing a glorious chance he would be replaying time and again in his sleep last night. From Hutton’s throw-in on the right, Snodgrass and Fletcher combined swiftly and intelligently to feed the ball to the unmarked Conway on the left of the American penalty area. But with only Howard to beat from close range, Conway was far too deliberate with his right-foot shot and directed it wide of the Everton goalkeeper’s right-hand post.
Neither side had managed an attempt on target during the first half, but the Americans wo were the first to do so, three minutes after the restart, when Altidore’s shot was comfortably gathered by Marshall.
If that was routine stuff for the Scotland ’keeper, Howard had to produce a stop from the top drawer to deny Snodgrass at the other end in the 53rd minute. A foraging run from left-back Steven Whittaker was abruptly halted by Geoff Cameron’s foul to present Scotland with a free kick around 25 yards out.
In a similar position from which he netted a brilliant set piece for Norwich against West Ham last Saturday, Snodgrass showed excellent technique to lift the ball over the defensive wall and towards the top left hand corner of the net, only to see Howard stretch out a glove and flick it behind for a corner.
Scotland had a penalty claim turned down when referee Michael Oliver was unmoved as Conway’s cross struck the trailing arm of Gonzalez.
The passing of the home team had become less crisp as the match progressed, typified by the slackness of Mulgrew which presented Altidore with a good chance which he struck narrowly wide of Marshall’s right-hand post from the edge of the penalty area.
The unsuccessful penalty claim count was levelled up 14 minutes from time, the referee at least consistent as he waved aside American appeals when substitute Brek Shea’s cross struck the flailing arm of Grant Hanley.
Both teams made the customary procession of changes in the second period, Scotland’s including a debut for Dundee United winger Gary Mackay-Steven in the closing stages. The Americans wh should have snatched a late winner through one of their replacements, AZ Alkmaar striker Aron Johannsson seeing one shot saved by Marshall and then wastefully dragging another effort wide of target.
Scotland: Marshall, Hutton, Greer, Hanley, Whittaker (Wallace 69); Brown, Mulgrew; Bannan (Naismith 81), Snodgrass (McCormack 69), Conway (Mackay-Steven 84); Fletcher. Subs not used: Gilks, McArthur, Berra, Adam, Martin, Fox, Anya, Bryson.
USA: Howard, Evans (Lichaj 72), Gonzalez, Cameron, Beasley; Bradley, Jones (Diskerud 62); Bedoya (Wondolowski 81), Kljestan (Johansson 62), E. Johnson (Shea 62); Altidore (Boyd 90). Subs not used; Brooks, S.Johnson, Orozco.
Referee: M Oliver (England)