ORLANDO, Fla. — If Thursday’s friendly match against Ecuador represented a new start for the United States men’s national team — the game was the USMNT’s first with a permanent coach and a full-strength squad since the Americans failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup — then count the 1-0 win at Orlando City Stadium as a surefooted first step.
The U.S. deserved the victory, having dominated possession and created the only two on-target scoring chances, including Gyasi Zardes’ game-winning goal off a wicked deflection in the 81st minute:
— Univision Deportes (@UnivisionSports) March 22, 2019
Here are three quick thoughts on the match.
Berhalter’s possession-based style was plain to see
Even with nothing to show for it for most of the match, the U.S. was able to control the ball and the game against the South Americans. From the start, the hosts combined passes and unsettled Ecuador by pulling them from side to side, just as new boss Gregg Berhalter intended. And sure enough, potential scoring opportunities began to materialize before long. The best of them fell to left winger Paul Arriola in the 25th minute, but Ecuador keeper Alexander Dominguez made a strong, point-blank stop with his legs.
Arriola beat Dominguez with his next shot, on the half-hour mark, but the apparent goal was a called back after Jordan Morris was controversially ruled offside. Replays appeared to show that Morris was even with the last defender. Nonetheless, it seemed only a matter of time before the breakthrough would come.
“I think we were able to take control of the game with our positioning,” Berhalter said.
But Berhalter also warned on Wednesday that there would be growing pains considering that the team had just two full training sessions beforehand. Sure enough, most of the second half turned out to be a slog, with stoppages for injuries — more on those below — and a slew of substitutions interrupting the Americans’ forward momentum.
“Unfortunately,” Berhalter said, “we weren’t able to convert more chances into goals.”
With time running out, an unsatisfying scoreless tie seemed inevitable. Then Zardes got on the end of a long pass by Tim Ream and fired a shot that defender Robert Arboleda got a foot on, only to see the ball loop over Dominguez, off the bottom of the crossbar and into the net.
“If you don’t shoot,” Zardes said, “you don’t score.”
Pulisic, McKennie subbed out after nasty tackles
The victory made Berhalter just the second U.S. coach (along with Bob Bradley) to win each of his first three games. However, it was bittersweet.
This match marked the first time that 20-year-old standouts Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie started for their country in the same game. All three players showed brief flashes of their vast potential in the opening stanza, too, even if their end product was lacking.
But the night took a decidedly sour turn for Pulisic and McKennie in the second half. Pulisic took a knock right in front of the U.S. bench that left him writhing on the turf. It was a scary moment; a trainer was seen attending to Pulisic after he left the field to a loud ovation.
It turned out he was fine. Berhalter confirmed that the plan from the start was to remove Pulisic after about an an hour given that another match against defending Copa America champion Chile is looming next week in Houston.
McKennie wasn’t so lucky. After going up for a header, the hard-charging midfielder got low-bridged by Ecuador’s Carlos Gruezo and rolled his left ankle upon landing. Minutes later, McKennie was being stretchered off the field.
“We believe it’s a sprained ankle,” Berhalter said. “We hope it’s not as severe as it could be.”
Whatever the diagnosis, it seems highly unlikely that McKennie will be available next week. If not, it will probably scupper Berhalter’s plan to play Adams at right back, where the natural central midfielder mostly acquitted himself well on Thursday. After McKennie’s injury, Adams immediately moved to the middle with veteran DeAndre Yedlin slotting in on the back line.
Another test awaits, but the U.S. will take this win
It was far from a perfect performance from an attacking perspective. “We created a bunch of half-chances that should’ve amounted to more,” Berhalter said.
On the other hand, the back four of Adams, Ream, John Brooks and Aaron Long was air tight. When the final whistle sounded, the U.S. hadn’t conceded a single shot on goal. “Our collective defense I thought was good,” Berhalter said. “We didn’t really give them many openings. They couldn’t find penetrating passes. They resorted to long balls, and those guys gobbled everything up.”
He’s right. It’s hard to quibble too much with a third straight shutout win to kick off the Berhalter era after a mostly miserable year and a half following the qualifying disaster.
“It was a really tight window,” Berhalter said. “I told the guys these two games will be the most challenging games we have together as a group because of the lack of time.”
The U.S. will get another chance to tighten things up on Tuesday against an even better foe in Chile. Berhalter will get to evaluate a few new players. There’s still a long way to go, of course, but the Americans had to start somewhere. This was as good a place as any.