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USA v. Ecuador, What we Learned

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Here's what we learned from the 1-0 victory.

Ecuador v United States Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images

After a long match where the United States absolutely dominated possession from the opening whistle but failed to deliver the final ball through a packed Ecuadorian defense, the Americans were able to snatch a flukey deflected goal from distance by Gyasi Zardes to walk away with a victory.

In contrast to expectations, Ecuador chose to bottle themselves up from the start rather than attempting to play out into the US in any shape. As a result, the US entirely controlled the game and looked utterly unbothered in defense, while still struggling to seize the lead. All the while, Ecuador proved willing to get a bit physical, eventually forcing Trapp and Pulisic out out of precaution following hard tackles, and McKennie after picked up what looked to be a serious ankle injury (which comprised literally the whole starting midfield for the team). While a good deal of the passing and possession could be described as pretty, very little of it proved to be proactive. All together, Ecuador didn’t prove to be the test we were hoping, yet wound up resembling the sort of morass that the USMNT commonly must battle in CONCACAF. Still, there were quite a few things to learn from this game.

In the preview post from a few days ago, Donald brought up a few questions:

Does Tyler Adams at right back work?
Can the defense keep organized?
Where does Pulisic play in the system?

We’ll focus on those. Let’s get started.

Right Back At Ya

Going into this camp, there was a good deal of speculation about whether Tyler Adams would slot in at his natural position as a defensive midfielder, or in Berhalter’s unconventional take on right back. And then the manager came out and stated that Adams would, indeed, take on that right back role. Queue the existential dread.

Despite all the anxiety of the fanbase, the move made sense. On the ball, Adams would take up positions he was familiar with. In a possession based system, he would spend most of the time in the same spaces that he plays in at the club level.

As a defensive midfielder, Adams is also praised for how quickly and effectively he acts in recovering the ball immediately after the team loses possession. Tucking inside would mean he would be in the perfect position for the repress. It would only be when the team was actively defending in formation that Adams would be on the right flank. And, even then, he had an opportunity to use his pace to break down the wing if he won back the ball. Even better, putting Adams as a hybrid RB/D-mid, Berhalter could play all three of McKennie, Pulisic, and Adams all together AND fit in another central midfielder. For all the consternation the fan base has for Bradley and Trapp, the USMNT talent pool is still thin most everywhere but there and at center back. Moving Adams to right back makes sense. As I said to the page’s other writers, this puts the best 3 midfielders the US has on the field all together, covers up Trapp/Bradley’s deficiencies, gives Pulisic essentially a free role, and forces opposing players to have to go through a defensive wood chipper if they want to try and play through the middle. There is a lot to like there.

Still, there was good reason for anxiety. The USMNT spent years with Klinsmann playing players out of position. And while the position made sense, it was made for a promising young player with a great track record in MLS, not a promising young player who instantly cemented himself as a starter for a Champions League place Bundesliga side, playing his way into the shortlist for best d-mid in Germany in less than 10 games, all at the age of 20. As the USA Today Sports wondered, is it really worth moving such a standout player out of his best position to play in a convoluted role, all for the sake of playing freaking Wil Trapp.

So, how did it all go?

Well. Very well.

It took Adams a little while to get used to tucking inside, but once he got going, he was an absolute force to be reckoned with. The USMNT played with well over 60% of possession, made almost 700 passes in the process, completing just shy of 90% of those passes. Adams was a huge part of that, with his consistent tidiness on the ball.

On defense, there was always the question going into the match about whether that right side would be left exposed by having the right back tuck in. It most certainly required Adams to do some serious backtracking. And, man, he pulled it off.

Adams’ recognition and awareness of where he needed to be to cover over on the right is really quite something. Combining that with his pace and energy, and you some how have a player covering the crazy amount of ground to play two positions. Between Adams and the right-most center back, Aaron Long, that right side was absolutely shut down. Adams came out of this game as one of the big winners, easily making a case for himself as the best player on the team.

Speaking of Long...

System Check

From top to bottom, the USMNT’s defensive unit absolutely shut down Ecuador. The South Americans had a single shot off target and forced Sean Johnson to make literally zero saves. Between stifling attacks through possession, pressing, and solid defensive organization, the team bottled up Ecuador so bad, they looked like a CONCACAF minnow. Now, a lot of that had to do with the choices that Ecuador made. The team’s manager used to coach Panama and he had the team shrink into a ball and defend as if they were Panama instead of a South American mid-weight. It wasn’t the performance we were expecting, but, hey, you can only play what is in front of you.

I’ve already talked about how good Adams was in the recovery. But credit needs to go to the backline as well, particularly Aaron Long and John Brooks. Nothing got between the two of them. Whenever Ecuador threatened to break down the side, there was Long, matching those pacy wingers step-for-step. When Tim Ream screwed up at the end of the match, there was Brooks to shepherd the attacker until the defense could recover. Those two were always where they needed to be. And they also played on the front foot. The two center backs, though particularly Brooks, played out of the back reliably, consistently, accurately, and effectively. They were able to distribute the ball and diffuse pressure all game long. I talked a lot towards the end of the last cycle about how the lack of players to distribute the ball made Michael Bradley an easy and effective target to press, even as he sat deep in front of the backline. Well, if our center backs are distributing like this, that’s far less of a viable strategy. If both your midfield and your center backs can ping the ball around the field, the opposing attackers are going to be running in circles, out of position, tying to chase the ball and implement a press. It’s something that the USMNT sorely needs, and tonight showed how much promise the likes of Long and Brooks have in the program.

It also needs to be mentioned that Brooks and Adams were the only real standouts from that cast of new players who weren’t at January camp. You know who joined Long in standing out? Wil Trapp and Gyasi Zardes. (No, I’m not cackling. Of course I’m not. Ok, well, maybe a little bit.)

Trapp is on the field for one particular skill. He’s there to play vertical passes that break through the opposing lines of defense and force defenders to scramble. And he did that from the very opening minutes.

Trapp did that again. And again. And again. All throughout his time on the field. Here’s his pass map. You can see that he hit at least a dozen successful long balls in just an hour.

Look, if a player is repeatedly hitting passes like that throughout the game, then it is absolutely worth it to have him on the field. Not that Trapp was a liability in this game. On the contrary, he was defensively solid. With Adams, McKennie, and Pulisic in midfield with him, Trapp was able to consistently deny Ecuador time on the ball. And he was a solid presence out of possession, winning some good tackles and fouls and demonstrating some physicality along the way. Looking at this game, it’s hard for me to isolate one single man of the match out of Trapp, Adams, and Long. Those three were each that good.

Gyasi Zardes also had a really good night. Look, Zardes gets a lot of flack. He gets a lot of deserved flack, including flack from me. But he was really good against Ecuador. Yes, he had all but 10 touches, along with a goal ginned up through some unholy cross between luck and happenstance. But that’s looking at the wrong thing. Under Berhalter, Zardes is a system player. He’s out there to make the unselfish run time and time again. Go watch the highlights and see where the defending center backs are every time McKennie or Pulisic receives the ball in the final third. They should be on them. But instead, they are on Zardes, who is making a run towards goal, dragging the defense along with him, and making space for his advanced midfielders. When the system is running smoothly, those unselfish runs are supposed to be eventually rewarded with tap-ins. Well, tonight, the system wasn’t quite running smoothly, but Zardes got his reward anyway. (And his first touch didn’t fail him once in the whole game (no, the offsides play does not count). You can hear it from Zardes himself. He’s bought into that system, and he’s there grinding out those runs, trusting that it will lead to success.

I’m not going to pretend that Zardes is going to be the first choice starter for the USMNT in the long run. As soon as he is healthy and reintegrated into the squad, Jozy Altidore is taking that spot. And if he continues to progress and advance his game, the competition for that sole striker position in two years will be between Josh Sargent and Altidore. Zardes is here for now because we aren’t that deep at striker, because our prospects are still developing, and because he knows the system and makes the unselfish run. I refuse to begrudge him for having a good night, and you shouldn’t either.

Wil Trapp, on the other hand, has played himself right into a possible longterm future starting with the national team. Whenever the USMNT wants to hold tons of possession, Trapp is the guy to play, and this game proved it. In home games against CONCACAF opponents playing a seriously low block, Trapp has the sort of distributional talent that the USMNT needs in order to break through the defensive lines and get chances in front of goal. And, right now, the only other player who consistently hits those kinds of passes is Michael Bradley. So long as the USMNT needs those passes, one of them needs to be on the field. But they might not be the only players hitting those passes on the regular for long.

If Adams starts hitting passes like this on a whim, Trapp becomes redundant.

Work in Progress

You remember that moment when Christian Pulisic absolutely skinned Manchester United defender Antonio Valencia with a single move? Yeah, let’s enjoy that one more time.

Take a good look because that’s basically the only notable moment Pulisic had all game. The players returning from January Camp looked comfortable with the system while the new guys mostly didn’t. Zardes looked good and Arriola looked fine (I’ve watched Abameyang miss enough sitters at Arsenal to forgive the D.C. United winger.) In contrast, Morris, Pulisic, and McKennie didn’t quite seem to have the crispness in their touch and decision making to break open that Ecuadorian backline. It was clear that the expectation was that La Tri would try and play into the US, creating openings for the Americans to exploit. Instead, the attack mostly stalled in the final third, largely teetering out in the hands of those players.

A lot of this clearly has to do with how these players weren’t quite used to the system, and thus, didn’t have that ingrained intuition of where the gaps would be. But a lot of it probably also had to do with players taking on unfamiliar roles.

At Schalke 04, McKennie is essentially an omnitool, shoved into whatever square peg the team needs, whether it is as a CAM or a center back, and asked to play the team’s physical version of anti-football. It’s a bit weird to go into a national team set up and be asked to play the ball at your feet in tight corridors as a linking player when your club game is more centered on leaping for headers. Jordon Morris, likewise, plays the wing for Seattle, not as a tricky dribbler, but as a speedster running into space. With Berhalter, he’s asked to hug the line and beat his man, though there wasn’t really much space at all behind Ecuador’s backline. And that goes for Pulisic as well. With Dortmund, Pulisic is a winger, not a central creator. He runs at defenders, not between and away from them. This doesn’t mean he can’t necessarily do it. We need more time to see and find out. But, particularly for Pulisic, there might be a better way to configure this team to get the most out of the attack.

And this is where we talk about continuity. There was actually quite a lot of turnover from the lineups in January camp to this one, with only 3 players who got playing time two months ago starting against Ecuador. Of the newcomers, one did essentially nothing (Johnson), two had stellar nights (Brooks and Adams) and the rest lacked consistency, sharpness, and end product. It’s not easy to just throw a bunch of new players into a new way of playing. That’s why the USMNT has historically just trotted out some version of the 4-4-2; players already knew it and didn’t have to learn a whole lot. Having players who know how to play in the system alongside players learning that system helps a lot, even when those players are not the ones who will be on the field in the biggest competitions. Having players who have more training in the system like Zardes and Arriola and Long out on the field, regardless of their individual talents, provides a source of constituency and helps new players, even superbly talented players like Pulisic and McKennie, learn what to expect on the field. Those other players from January camp that so many of you were upset about play into that as well. Lima, Lovitz, Baird, and Ramirez did not play. That does not mean that they are deadweight. It means that they probably were really useful in training to help get those guys you do want to see on the field up to speed on how all of this works.

Keep all of this in perspective. There aren’t competitive matches until June and the World Cup isn’t until 2022. Right now, the team is winning, even as they play a style we've never seen before, as they start to gel and sand out the edges. Let’s take this one game at a time. And let’s see what we’ve learned when Tuesday’s match against Chile comes around.