It's been a while since optimism ruled in the wake of a United States men's national team result. On Wednesday night in Frisco, Texas, the U.S. earned a 1-0 win vs. 12th-ranked Ecuador in its first major test ahead of Copa America. Here's what we learned:
Conservative lineups beget conservative results
Jürgen Klinsmann's starting lineup was almost predictable by his standards, yet not indefensible. His choice of the familiar three-man midfield triumvirate of Bradley-Jones-Beckerman was fairly easy to see coming. Facing an excessively more dangerous opponent than the previous game, Klinsmann opted for the comfort of defensive cover. Deployed behind a safe "old guard" front trio of Zardes-Dempsey-Zusi, the first half results were as predictable as the lineup choices.
The U.S. and Ecuador played to a rather lackluster 0-0 stalemate by halftime, with the Americans generating little resembling a quality chance while ceding 54% of the possession. Perhaps the best chance went awry in the 29th minute when Gyasi Zardes' heavy first touch wasted a clever ball in from Clint Dempsey. After a couple of shaky early touches from both John Brooks and Steve Birnbaum, the U.S. kept things fairly tidy at the back during the first 45 minutes, yet had few bright spots in the attacking third.
Darlington Nagbe is a game changer
The second half introduction into the game of Darlington Nagbe (along with Bobby Wood) altered the game's trajectory. Nagbe replaced Beckerman, which resulted in Bradley shifting backward into the #6 role. Meanwhile Nagbe would operate primarily on the left in spaces previously occupied by Zardes, with Wood slotting higher up on the field.
The difference was immediately noticeable. The U.S. was dominant on the ball during the first 15 minutes of the second half, with Nagbe driving the attack. It looked like a team with new ideas and confidence, complemented by the more aggressive movement of Wood.
Nagbe didn't put a foot wrong the entire outing, successfully completing all 32 of his pass attempts. His passing was not only accurate, it was attack-minded, as the vast majority of his attempts went forward. His 90th minute winning goal was a just reward.
Christian Pulisic will get significant Copa minutes
We wondered if 17-year-old Christian Pulisic would be trusted enough to get a serious look from Klinsmann this summer. Last night we got some pretty solid insight into that question.
Pulisic entered the match in the 64th minute, replacing Clint Dempsey. And to the surprise of few, he looked like the same confident, mature player we've seen this year with Borussia Dortmund. Pulisic seemed to fit in immediately, which is especially notable given that he'd never played with any of his new teammates before. He took on defenders relentlessly, and showcased his delightful skill on the ball, pairing up quite nicely with Darlington Nagbe.
Pulisic made the most of his thirty minute run-out, giving Klinsmann every reason to make him an immediate part of the rotation. Pulisic figures to get another long look on Saturday night vs. Bolivia, and will be an important figure in determining the fate of the United States at Copa America Centenario.