Nagbe's late goal gives U.S. 1-0 win over Ecuador in Copa tune-up (Video)

Nagbe's late goal gives U.S. 1-0 win over Ecuador in Copa tune-up (Video)

The score and headline will look better than the game itself. The United States men's national team beat the 12th-ranked team in the world.

It took a long time for the U.S. to muster much of anything that was positive in a 1-0 friendly victory over Ecuador in a Copa America Centenario tune-up in Frisco, Texas on Wednesday night. For the Yanks' play in the first half was drab, the opposition was utterly listless and there was a dearth of scoring chances on both sides. Also, a concerning lack of cohesion between the American starters marred the overall performance.

But, eventually, with time running out, Darlington Nagbe got the winner the U.S. deserved for a stronger second act.

Ecuador had made a 4-0-0 start in South America's murderous World Cup qualifying marathon. In spite of tying Paraguay and losing to Colombia, respectively, in their last two games, La Tri is still tied with Uruguay at the top of the table. But it was hard to tell on Wednesday, as Ecuador barely showed up to a half-empty Toyota Stadium, the third time in three games that the U.S. drew fewer than 10,000 souls to a friendly in 2016.

But then the Americans were slow to punish Ecuador for it. After a handful of defensive bungles early on by the central defensive pairing of John Brooks and Steve Birnbaum, the teams slipped into a mutual slumber until the intermission.

Other than an outstanding tackle by Brooks to diffuse Enner Valencia's run, as Ecuador played through the American lines with terrific ease, and some nice defensive work by DeAndre Yedlin opposite Jefferson Montero, a veteran-heavy U.S. lineup produced next to nothing. Indeed, the teams each took a lone shot in the opening 45 minutes, neither of which made it on target.

Clint Dempsey in particular was isolated, playing up top by himself in the absence of the injured Jozy Altidore.

Once head coach Jurgen Klinsmann started making substitutions in the second half, however, things began to flow better. Michael Bradley was dropped deeper in midfield and into his natural role. And as forward Bobby Wood and midfielders Darlington Nagbe and then Christian Pulisic came on, the Americans gained significantly in assertive possession, movement, initiative and threat.

It nevertheless took an hour for either team to get a shot on goal, when Dempsey's volley was blocked just a foot or so into its trajectory, coming off a defender's backside. But the U.S. wrested control all the same.

They came close to scoring in the 71st minute, when Graham Zusi dribbled through traffic and crossed to Alejandro Bedoya at the far post. His square ball was out of Pulisic's reach though, and it missed the far post as well.

But then, at length, Yedlin summoned a final burst of energy and sent in a high ball. It was cleared to Wood, who headed it to Nagbe. The Liberian-American seemingly established a time-space continuum in the middle of the box and when the ball lazily came down, he chested it and volleyed it home past substitute goalkeeper Esteban Dreer for his first international goal.

It was a deserved winner, and an encouraging sign for a young American, who will surely be relied upon more heavily in the coming years. What was not encouraging, however, was the play of the American starters in the first half. It's hard to tell, exactly, what Klinsmann's intention was with his starting lineup – it's always hard to tell, after all – but if he has any notions of rolling out that same squad in the Copa, the second half must have dissuaded him.

When Nagbe, Wood, Pulisic and Bedoya were inserted into the fray, an unmistakable vigor and joy also entered the field. The U.S. finally attacked with conviction. And on the strength of Wednesday's evidence, this team competes better when it gets what little creativity it can field onto the park. Rather than three holding midfielders – the aging Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman and the ever excellent Bradley – crowbarred into more adventurous roles.

Competing with the hemisphere's best will be hard enough come June. The U.S. looks better equipped when it trusts its younger players.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.