ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Gregg Berhalter’s vision for the U.S. national team started to unfold as the Americans passed the ball from side to side, played diagonal balls long and short. Possession is his key to success.
The style was more pleasing. But the only goal of night was pretty weird.
Gyasi Zardes’s shot from about 22 yards deflected off a defender, looped over a 6-foot-5 goalkeeper and ricocheted in off the crossbar in the 81st minute, giving the U.S. a 1-0 exhibition win over Ecuador on Thursday night. That made Berhalter only the second American coach to win his first three games, the first since Bob Bradley in 2007.
Failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup was followed by a year of debuts and drift under interim coach Dave Sarachan. Players are starting to envision the future of this year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup and the start of World Cup qualifying in 2020.
“He’s going to be the coach for a while. He wants to really implement a system, and he wants all the guys that come into camp to really understand it,” star midfielder Christian Pulisic said. “It’s for the bigger picture, and we have big things that he’s working towards.”
Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams, a trio of 20-year-olds who have become regulars in the German Bundesliga, started together for the first time with the national team. McKennie limped off after twisting his left ankle in the 63rd minute when he jumped to head a bouncing ball, Ecuador’s Carlos Gruezo failed to leap and McKennie tumbled over him and landed awkwardly. After a few minutes down, he hobbled to the corner flag with assistance, grimacing, and then needed a stretcher to come off the field.
McKennie was to have an X-ray and MRI.
“We believe it’s a sprained ankle,” Berhalter said. “We hope that it’s not as severe as it could be.”
While the U.S. showed some of the fluidity and offensive spark Berhalter sought, outshooting Ecuador 5-1 and finishing with a 6-1 advantage in corner kicks, the Americans were exposed for defensive gaps that stronger opponents would exploit. South American champion Chile figures to provide a more difficultly on Tuesday in Houston.
“I told the guys these two games will be the most challenging games we’ll have together as a group because of the lack of time,” Berhalter said. “If we’re positioned well enough, like we were for most of the game, I think we’ll be OK.”
Paul Arriola had two excellent chances, getting stopped by goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez in the 26th minute and then putting the ball in the net in the 30th only for Jordan Morris to get ruled offside during the buildup.
The U.S. scored after 31-year-old defender Tim Ream, playing his first international match since September 2017 and captaining the U.S. for the first time, intercepted Gabriel Archiller’s clearance attempt at midfield and played the ball to Zardes.
Zardes dribbled toward goal and from the arc took a shot that bounded off Robert Arboleda. Dominguez, standing about 6 yards off his line, backpedaled slowly and was unable to tip the ball over the crossbar. Zardes’ seventh international goal was his first since he scored against Ecuador in the 2016 Copa America quarterfinals.
“I was like, ‘Going, going, going.’ And sure enough, it went in,” Zardes said. “You got to shoot. If you don’t shoot, you don’t score.”
Hired in December as the first American to play for the U.S. in the World Cup and coach the national team, Berhalter uses a formation that is a 4-3-3 in the attack, spreading players wide, and a 4-4-2 on defense. He began with wins over Panama and Costa Rica with a roster all from Major League Soccer, and the U.S. has outscored opponents 6-0 in the three matches.
“We had a lot of possession. We had a lot of ball circulation. I think we could create a little bit more chances in the attacking third,” said defensive midfielder Wil Trapp, who came off in the 59th after bruising a thigh in a challenge from Antonio Valencia.
Adams was moved from central midfield to right back, a position he played in his youth, but Berhalter gave him freedom to roam forward to the center of the field and was even on the left flank late in the first half.
“Once he said go in the middle of the field, I stayed there,” Adams said with a laugh, before turning serious. “It’s a really good feeling when you have a projected plan.”
NOTES: Morris made his first appearance since January 2018, a month before tearing his right anterior cruciate ligament. ... GK Sean Johnson made his first start since the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup and did not have to make a save. ... Ecuador, which also failed to reach last year’s World Cup, was missing striker Enner Valencia because of a back injury. Well-regarded 18-year-old Leonardo Campana entered to start the second half in his international debut.
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