Options for Copa America emerge in USA’s uplifting win over Ecuador
Get all of Brian Straus’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
Jurgen Klinsmann has preached proactive soccer but for the most part, his U.S. team has failed to deliver—even when it’s managed to get good results. On Wednesday night in Frisco, Texas, the Americans stepped up their preparation for next month’s Copa América Centenario with an exhibition against Ecuador that showcased both the pragmatic style to which Klinsmann has often resorted and the high-pressure, attacking soccer for which he’s hoped.
After grinding the game to a halt in the first half, the U.S. rode the energy of super subs Darlington Nagbe (the goal scorer), Bobby Wood and Christian Pulisic to a 1–0 win that was only its third triumph in 13 all-time meetings with Ecuador. The visitors were missing the likes of Antonio Valencia, and Michael Arroyo was a 64th-minute substitute, but they still fielded the majority of the men who are expected to start in June.
It was an uplifting result for the U.S., which has had close to its full complement of Copa players for only a few days. The Americans will meet Bolivia in Kansas City on Saturday before heading to the Bay Area for the Copa América opener against Colombia on June 3.
Here are three thoughts from Wednesday’s win:
After a slow start, possession and Nagbe make the difference
Like many friendlies, Wednesday’s was altered dramatically by the second-half substitutes. Nagbe, Wood and Pulisic entered the game with a combined 23 senior caps (Wood had 17 of them) but each boasts speed, skill and the ability to create in the offensive third. The U.S. was barely able to find the Ecuador penalty area in the first half but enjoyed several dangerous forays in the second thanks to increased possession and the attacking menace offered by the three subs.
In the second half, with Wood and Nagbe in the game and Michael Bradley retreating to a more defensive position from where he could see the field and pick out passes, the U.S. enjoyed a 55%–45% possession advantage and 87% pass completion rate. In the first 45 minutes, Ecuador owned possession by the same margin, and the Americans’ completion percentage was eight points lower, according to ESPN.
Clint Dempsey, isolated in the first half, plays better alongside or underneath a second forward. Nagbe replaced Kyle Beckerman, allowing Bradley to shift back, and Wood came in for Gyasi Zardes. The new Hamburg signing proved to be an instant upgrade in decision-making and technique. Possession creates chances. A floating Bradley cross in the 47th minute just missed three U.S. teammates, Jermaine Jones forced a save in the 59th and then Dempsey and Bradley came close a minute later.
Finally, in the 90th, after Pulisic had replaced Dempsey and done some wonderful work on the left, Nagbe tallied his first international goal. DeAndre Yedlin got things started with a cross from the right. Wood knocked the ensuing clearance over to Nagbe, who chested the ball down and scored with a half volley.
The U.S. dominated following the first-half stalemate, deserved the win and can be increasingly confident that some of its newer players have what it takes to make an impact next month.
Recipe for a result against Colombia
There is, of course, a potential downside to opening up the game.
On paper, Colombia presents the toughest test, by some distance, on the Americans’ Copa schedule. Ranked fourth by FIFA, Colombia boasts world-class attackers like James Rodríguez, Juan Cuadrado and Carlos Bacca and manhandled the U.S. in a November 2014 friendly. Getting off to a good start in group play is important. Avoiding a heavy, demoralizing defeat is even more so.
Klinsmann started Wednesday’s game against a talented Ecuador side with a formation that put the contest on lockdown. It was tedious, occasionally feisty and tough to watch. And if the U.S. wants to stay conservative and play for a draw against Colombia and then look to advance with good results in its next two games, Wednesday’s starting lineup may be just the answer.
For the first time since the 2014 World Cup, the U.S. played with a three-man midfield comprising Beckerman, Bradley and Jones. The only space Ecuador could carve out was through Jefferson Montero on the left flank. But Yedlin, now Klinsmann’s clear first choice at right back, stood toe-to-toe with the Swansea City winger as the Americans held the visitors to only one shot.
The U.S. had nothing going forward. Dempsey isn’t a target striker and was nowhere to be found. He had only 10 touches in the first half. Zardes struggled and right forward Graham Zusi was solid but not dynamic enough to make much of a difference as the Americans could barely cross midfield. But the U.S. defense never really came close to breaking. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan made a couple of good decisions early and Montero did get one or two looks, but for the most part the visitors were stifled and silenced. They had the ball but didn't do a whole lot with it.
Could the U.S., with one or two tweaks up front, go 90 minutes against Colombia with that midfield trio and a solid back four? A draw would put Klinsmann’s team in good position. It would be unwatchable, but could get the job done.
Copa lineup clues emerge
There have been so many questions concerning the U.S. back four, but it seems that most of them have been answered more than a week before the Copa kicks off. Yedlin’s defensive improvement is obvious, and the groin injury that kept Fabian Johnson off the field for a month obviously has healed. He went 90 minutes on Wednesday.
John Brooks was imperious in front of Guzan and while Steve Birnbaum had a couple of shaky moments in the first half, he’s unlikely to start over a healthy Geoff Cameron. The Stoke City defender missed the Ecuador game while he recovers from a hamstring injury.
If Klinsmann decides that the midfield lockdown isn’t the answer against Colombia, then Bradley clearly demonstrated his comfort and efficacy as a No. 6. He plays there for Toronto FC, and it appears that Klinsmann’s effort to turn his captain into a No. 10 finally may be over. And even though Nagbe typically is more dangerous in a central role, his touch and vision are so superior to Zardes’s that it now seems foolish to omit the Portland star. And don’t worry about Nagbe’s bite. He can defend and create turnovers as well.
Klinsmann likes options, and he now has them. He can shut a game down or open it up. In Nagbe, Wood and Pulisic, Klinsmann has players who want to play the sort of proactive soccer he promised five years ago. And they made a case for a significant role next month. It’ll now be down to the manager to make the right choices.