The USA improved to 3-0-0 under Gregg Berhalter, with Tyler Adams adjusting to his new role, Gyasi Zardes benefiting from some good luck and Weston McKennie exiting injured after a scary moment in the 1-0 win.
The U.S. men's national team returned to action Thursday night with the purpose of integrating Europe-based players and building on the foundation and tactical system set by new manager Gregg Berhalter. It did just that in a 1-0 win over Ecuador, and while the result was achieved in fortuitous manner, it's all part of a process, with the manager and his players seeing the long game.
The guests, who were missing injured star forward Enner Valencia, offered very little going forward, with the U.S. carrying over 62% of the possession and outshooting Ecuador 5-1. Berhalter is trying to preach a possession-based style, looking to disorganize and break opponents down, and while the U.S. was able to accomplish that to a degree, its game-winning goal came in fluky circumstances.
Gyasi Zardes received a pass from Tim Ream before attempting a speculative shot from 25 yards. It took a deflection off defender Robert Arboleda, looping over goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez, who it appeared could've done a bit more to try and keep it out. Nevertheless, it gave the U.S. the edge it needed, as it improved to 3-0-0 under Berhalter while not conceding a goal.
The win did come at a cost, as Weston McKennie was forced off with a nasty-looking ankle injury, the severity of which is not yet known.
Here are three thoughts on the USA's win:
McKennie injury puts a damper on the night
McKennie has the tools to be a fixture in the U.S. midfield for years to come, but it figures to be a little while before he plays again after landing awkwardly on his left ankle after an aerial challenge. His foot bent nearly at a 90-degree angle as he tumbled to the ground, and he couldn't walk under his own power to exit the field. Eventually, he was stretchered off to the locker room.
U.S. Soccer and Berhalter said that the early, pre-MRI indications are that it's just a sprain, which would be cause for a sigh of relief. Avoiding a break or any severe ligament or tendon damage would obviously be ideal for the 20-year-old, who was making his first appearance under Berhalter.
Prior to the injury, McKennie had endured a mixed bag of a night. He was heavily involved in the USA's best chances in the first half, serving as a connector at the edge of the box, where the U.S. otherwise had a difficult time breaking Ecuador down. He also was a bit sloppy with his touches and went 26/36 passing on the night in a role that he'll need more time to adjust to as time goes on, given the new coach and personnel around him. The hope (shared by U.S. great Clint Dempsey) is that he'll be able to take the field again sooner than later and get back to work.
The Adams experiment
Speaking of players who need time to adjust to new roles, much was made of Tyler Adams being shoehorned into a right back role. The right back in Berhalter's system is a midfield-defender hybrid, one who needs to be able to read the game at a high level, cover tons of ground and know when to break forward and when to stay home. For a first impression, Adams did quite well.
It certainly wasn't perfect, and and on a couple of occasions, Ecuador was able to attack the space Adams vacated while pushing his way into the opposing half. Fortunately, Aaron Long's positioning and awareness helped provide cover while Adams raced back.
Otherwise, Adams marked the speedy Renato Ibarra to a solid degree, and he did his part in linking up with the attack. He wound up with one of the USA's first chances, receiving a pass from Christian Pulisic deep in the Ecuador box, only to have his shot blocked and put out for a corner.
In terms of distribution, Adams was a tidy 39/43 passing in the first half and an even better 52/54 in the second for an impressive 94% accuracy on the night. The 20-year-old Adams plays beyond his years and has earned plaudits for his seamless transition into a regular role in the midfield at RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga. It's little wonder Berhalter entrusted him with one of the more vital roles in his system, and while there's going to be an adjustment period, this was certainly a solid starting point.
There is a plan
The big-picture takeaway from a game that otherwise means very little is that there is, indeed, a plan when it comes to a progression of the team and how it appears on the field. There's something refreshing about a manager clearly stating his directives from the first day, the players taking to it and then doing their part to execute it on gameday.
You could hear it from the players who praised Berhalter's approach in the build-up to the match. You can see with a bit more regularity in what the U.S. is trying to do, whether it's pivoting the point of attack, playing calmly out of the back, overloading an area or simply making a more concerted effort to keep the ball. Ecuador and its very defensive approach certainly helped matters Thursday, and it's not like Panama or Costa Rica's B teams were World Cup contenders in the previous matches either, but the U.S. had barely been enforcing its will over Concacaf minnows, let alone South American opponents in recent years, so it's notable, even in low-stakes environments.
There's still a ways to go. With players coming into camp and having limited sessions and players getting accustomed to new roles, there was going to be a learning curve for this window. As good as the U.S. was with the ball, it was quite punchless in the final third, only putting two chances on frame–one of them being Zardes's ricocheted goal.
For all of the good–Adams in his new role; Long and John Brooks not putting a step wrong in central defense; an impressive midfield showing and sound distribution from Wil Trapp–there were some elements that needed work. The wing play from Paul Arriola and Jordan Morris was lacking overall, for instance. Pulisic had flashes of danger and played Adams and Arriola in for potential chances, but Berhalter is going to expect much more from the Chelsea-bound playmaker, especially on a night when the U.S. needs a breakthrough.
All in all it was a decent night and a step forward on what will be a long path. Berhalter will likely make numerous changes Tuesday night vs. Chile as he uses the last chance to assess his pool before pre-Gold Cup camp. By the time that comes around, the understanding of his desired approach and the plan that is most certainly in place will be a step further along.