The United States Men’s National Team returned to Orlando City Stadium on Thursday for international friendly action against Ecuador for the first time since October of 2017. It was the first time in Orlando for the Yanks under the leadership of Head Coach Gregg Berhalter, and it turned out to be a memorable debut as the USMNT took home a 1-0 victory on the strength of a late Gyasi Zardes goal. Zardes’ deflected goal chipped the keeper and capped off a solid performance by the U.S. defense that held Ecuador to a single shot.
Berhalter rolled out a 4-3-3 with defender Tim Ream rocking the captain’s armband. The trio of Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams started together for the first time, offering some intrigue in the attack for the USMNT.
The match got off to a hot start with some back-and-forth attacking from both sides marking the contest’s opening minutes, but it took quite a while for the intrigue to turn into movement on the scoreboard.
The U.S. got into the flow of things right away, as Paul Arriola was played long by Wil Trapp in the third minute before squaring the ball from the left wing toward goal where Zardes was oncoming. Ecuador dealt with the pass, but it was the first of several opportunities that would be created by the U.S. in the opening half, although bona-fide scoring chances were few and far between.
Adams won a corner minutes later for the U.S., and Pulisic’s subsequent service was headed just wide of goal by McKennie. The USMNT won a trio of fruitless corners about 20 minutes into the match before its biggest chance of the half came about in minute 26. After several quick build-up passes, Pulisic played Arriola into the center of the box where the winger had a free run at the ball. His strike from the inside edge of the box was stopped low by Ecuadorian keeper Alexander Dominguez, however, and the score remained deadlocked at 0-0 despite some good work from Pulisic and Co. in the buildup.
Just four minutes later, Zardes was played in front of goal by Jordan Morris on the break and missed what appeared to be a sitter in front of Dominguez. The rebound off the keeper was blasted into the net by Arriola, but the offside flag had been up on Morris since the beginning of the sequence, rendering it all moot and keeping the U.S. off the scoreboard.
Ecuador was only able to generate a single real chance in the first half despite spells of possession, but Beder Caicedo was unable to control his shot from the left side of the U.S. box, blasting it high after a good build-up sequence to keep U.S. goalkeeper Sean Johnson from having to do any work on the play.
Trapp was a bright spot for the U.S. in the opening half, as his passing from the deep midfield was a key element in opening things up for the American wingers. Trapp appeared to be laboring a bit in the second half, though, and he was taken off just before the hour mark in favor of the veteran Michael Bradley.
The U.S. was unable to put much together after the break until about 12 minutes had gone by. That’s when Pulisic made a run down the middle of the pitch and uncorked a shot from about 20 yards out that was deflected by an Ecuador defender over the bar for a corner. The USMNT was unable to make anything of the resulting corner, and a penalty shout for Pulisic a few minutes later fell on deaf ears, although it appeared to be solid defending from Ecuador in real time.
The U.S. made several changes after the 60-minute mark. Pulisic made way for Sebastian Lletget in the 62nd minute, and Weston McKennie went down for several minutes just moments later with an apparent ankle injury. McKennie was helped off the field by the medical staff before being carried into the locker room, and his status for next week’s match vs. Chile appears very much in doubt. DeAndre Yedlin came on subsequently in place of Jordan Morris, with the usual fullback showcasing his abilities on the right wing at Berhalter’s request, and the aforementioned Bradley entered for Trapp.
It looked for much of the second half like the U.S. would fail to find the offensive breakthrough that the crowd of 17,442 was waiting for. That was, until Zardes turned in the most unlikely of goals in the 80th minute with a deflected shot from distance that bounced high and found its way underneath the crossbar to break the nil-nil deadlock.
Zardes received the ball on the run down the middle of the pitch and pulled the trigger from just outside the box. An Ecuadorian defender was closing down and managed to stick a shin in the way of Zardes’ effort, but it had enough power behind it to still careen towards the goal and get between Dominguez’s outstretched hand and the crossbar. The crowd on The Wall erupted, and it didn’t matter that it wasn’t the prettiest goal — the Yanks had broken through to take a 1-0 lead.
From there the U.S. rode it out to the win, with a lone scare coming in minute 88 after a USMNT turnover gifted Ecuador the ball in the box. John Brooks swiftly dealt with the threat, however, clearing it out of bounds and preserving the one-goal cushion. Despite the narrow scoreline, the U.S. never appeared to be in imminent danger against Ecuador, winning the shot advantage, 5-1, and holding Ecuador without a single shot on frame.
Berhalter lauded his team’s defense following the match, and he also said that there will be more lineup tweaks next week against Chile.
“We’ll make some changes,” Berhalter said. “[We’ll] give guys an opportunity, and continue the theme of using this camp to evaluate what we have.”
Berhalter also added that McKennie would be getting an MRI tonight on his injured ankle.
The USMNT will return to action next Tuesday in Houston for another friendly against Chile. We’ll see if the Yanks can continue moving in the right direction with Berhalter’s plan continuing to take shape.