For the first time in a long time the USA played with a semblance of a plan and a system, and the result was an encouraging, if imperfect, display
Thursday night wasn’t Gregg Berhalter’s debut as U.S. national team coach, but for all intents and purposes, the 1-0 victory over Ecuador felt every bit like the true launch of the Berhalter era.
The U.S. coach’s first chance to deploy a group resembling a first-choice side also meant the first chance to see what Berhalter’s vision for the team will resemble going forward. The friendlies earlier in the year showed promise, but the lineups were missing the European-based talents expected to lead the next generation.
With Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams at his disposal for the first time, Berhalter’s full-strength U.S. squad played with the possession-based style that has become his trademark. The Americans enjoyed 62 percent of possession and limited Ecuador to zero shots on goal.
The USMNT also managed just one shot on goal through 80 minutes before Gyasi Zardes struck a wishful shot from long range that deflected off a defender and floated over the Ecuadorian goalkeeper.
“As you can see, we kept the ball well,” Pulisic said. “I think we had some good moments, but we didn’t expect to be perfect and we still have a lot of stuff we can work on. But it was a good start.”
“When you look at the amount of information we’ve given the guys in the last two days we’re pleased with the performance,” Berhalter said. “I think it’s a good starting point for this group and the defending was really good, so we’re pleased.”
While the team’s attack failed to generate many dangerous chances, the star of the night was the U.S. defense, which dealt with Ecuador’s counterattack well. John Brooks and Aaron Long turned in outstanding performances in central defense against an opponent that didn’t throw many numbers into the attack but did produce some threatening counters the Americans dealt with comfortably.
“From a team standpoint I was happy with the defensive shape, happy with the structure,” Berhalter said. “And it was good that our center backs, even when we were up the field, they could win every duel that comes out. It was really impressive.”
One of the major storylines heading into the match was how Adams would adapt to a new role as a right back and the RB Leipzig midfielder responded with a solid showing. He was dangerous when he morphed into a midfielder, but also showed his lack of familiarity with the defensive aspects of the right back position, even though his tireless work rate helped him recover most of the time.
“From a defensive perspective, look, he can cover the most ground on the field. He’s unbelievable in terms of his engine and ability to win balls and break up plays,” U.S. midfielder Wil Trapp said of Adams. “But you still saw he’s more of a midfielder when we have the ball, so he can come inside and still be flexible to get wide. But when he’s in the middle he can combine well. He can break lines well and also run off the number 10s in between the lines.”
“There’s still things that we need to work on, but to have a lot of European-based guys come into camp and really only have three full days to prepare, there’s a lot of information thrown at us,” Adams said. “So to get all the tactics right we knew it wasn’t going to happen, and it wasn’t going to be perfect, but now it’s looking at the growth of the team and the development moving forward.”
Overall the performance was an encouraging one, but also one that showed that there is still much more work to be done in terms of players familiarizing themselves with new roles and with each other. The match against Chile on Tuesday will provide fresh challenges, but Thursday’s win gives Berhalter and his team some material to analyze as they continue to adapt to a new system.
“On the day, if we’re a little bit sharper on some plays, a little bit more precise, then we end up breaking them down.” Berhalter said. “What I really liked from the guys is the effort to continue trying to break them down in the way that we’re giving them.
“We’ll make some changes against Chile – it won’t be the same lineup – and give other guys an opportunity, and continue on the theme of using this camp to evaluate what we have.”