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Five things to watch for when the USMNT takes on Ecuador

Photo by Trevor Ruszkowski/USA Today Sports
Photo by Trevor Ruszkowski/USA Today Sports

The Copa America is just around the corner, and the U.S. Men’s National Team’s biggest pre-tournament test comes with Wednesday night’s clash against one of South America’s elite.

In the second of a three-game friendly set, the USMNT takes on Ecuador on Wednesday night at Toyota Stadium. The match will all but certainly be the most challenging of the USMNT’s slate of games leading up to this summer’s tournament, as Ecuador enters sitting second in South America’s World Cup qualifying.

Facing a team like Ecuador will give Jurgen Klinsmann and the USMNT a legitimate preview of what this summer’s tournament will be like. Ecuador is a team that has looked very strong against some of CONMEBOL’s elite, and a strong performance against La Tricolor would raise spirits heading into the Copa America. A poor performance, though, would show Klinsmann that there is work to do before taking on one of the world’s elite in Colombia next week.

The match provides an opportunity for players to once again prove their worth to their head coach, while also giving Klinsmann a chance to tinker against a team that very much fits the mold of a Copa America contender.

Here are five things to watch out for when the USMNT takes on Ecuador:

PULISIC WATCH CONTINUES

Following a stellar season with Borussia Dortmund, Christian Pulisic is on the Copa America roster. What his role will be remains to be seen, but Wednesday’s match with Ecuador will likely provide a glimpse as to how Jurgen Klinsmann expects to use the 17-year-old star.

To date, Pulisic has made just one senior national team appearance for the U.S., making him a bit of an unknown quantity on the international level. That also makes him a bit of an unknown for the Copa America, as Pulisic can be anything from a starter to young role player simply along for the ride.

Wednesday’s game could spell out how Klinsmann sees Pulisic. If the youngster is given heavy minutes, it would serve as an indication that Pulisic is seen as a legitimate contributor for the upcoming tournament. If Klinsmann gives him a mere cameo or opts not to use him at all, the playmaker is likely still seen as a young prospect that could use the experience of being on the roster for a high-level tournament. However, the fact that Pulisic joined the USMNT in favor of a crucial youth match with BVB likely means that the youngster will be used in some capacity on Wednesday night.

At the end of the day, Wednesday’s game will not define Pulisic’s tournament, but it may offer a look at how Klinsmann defines the role he will play going forward.

BIRNBAUM GIVEN CHANCE TO PROVE HIMSELF AGAIN IN ABSENCE OF CAMERON

Geoff Cameron will not be in the lineup against Ecuador, creating an opportunity for the other centerbacks on the roster.

While the Stoke City defender recovers from injury, centerback duties will likely fall to some combination of John Brooks, Matt Besler and Steve Birnbaum on Wednesday night. Michael Orozco remains in the mix, but a lack of depth out wide means that the Tijuana defender will likely be seen as a fullback option.

To date, Klinsmann has been hesitant to deploy the left-footed pairing of Besler and Brooks. Playing two lefties is far from unheard of, but the USMNT coach has long stated his preference for centerbacks with opposing strong foots. That likely throws Birnbaum into the lineup, giving the D.C. United star a chance to build on several strong appearances with the team in January and against Guatemala.

All things considered, Birnbaum is likely the fourth centerback on the depth chart heading into the tournament, but yet another positive effort against a high-caliber opponent like Ecuador would bode well for Birnbaum’s future.

GOALKEEPER ROLES DEFINED, BUT DISCUSSION FAR FROM OVER

It is done. Brad Guzan is the USMNT starter. Tim Howard is the USMNT backup. However, the debate surrounding that decision is just beginning.

Now officially the team’s No. 1, Guzan is likely to get heavy minutes in the final two friendlies leading up to the Copa America. Every chance for a goalkeeper to adjust to his defenders is a valuable one, especially against a team like Ecuador that is sure to push the USMNT to the limit.

For his part, Guzan must look strong in the next two games. Heading into camp, Klinsmann himself alluded to the fact that the goalkeeping position was close to a 50-50 decision. Announcing Guzan early was done to stay as far away from a goalkeeper controversy as possible, but with Howard sitting right behind him, any struggles will only serve as fire for a new debate.

Guzan must look strong over the next two games leading to the Copa America. Ecuador will certainly test Guzan and the USMNT backline, but they must look strong if they hope to avoid reigniting a goalkeeper debate in the build-up to the Copa America.

MIDFIELD UNIT STILL UP IN THE AIR

For years, the USMNT midfield has been a puzzle. Klinsmann has assembled his pieces, but how he chooses to arrange them is up to him.

Heading into the Copa America, Klinsmann has a variety of central midfield options at his disposal. Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones remain two of the USMNT’s best players, but the duo has never truly shined when played as a pairing. Veteran Kyle Beckerman and apparent understudy Perry Kitchen headline the list of No. 6s, while Alejandro Bedoya, Graham Zusi and Darlington Nagbe can all be shuffled either centrally or out wide.

Against teams with the quality of Ecuador or tournament-opening opponent Colombia, Beckerman may be necessary as a shield in front of the backline. Despite his age and all of his attacking limitations, the Real Salt Lake midfielder is still the USMNT’s best No. 6 heading into this tournament. Beckerman’s inclusion would require either Bradley, Jones or Clint Dempsey to be benched if Klinsmann is not willing to sacrifice the team’s width. A narrow diamond remains an option, especially with Fabian Johnson penciled in at fullback.

Klinsmann won’t have his full team at his disposal in Wednesday’s match, as several defenders recover from injury. However, the match against Ecuador could be a true test of how a selected midfield unit fares against top-level opposition.

WOOD CONTINUING TO GROW AS TOP FORWARD

With Jozy Altidore gone, Bobby Wood is likely to lead the line in this summer’s Copa America. The opening game of camp provided a positive start, but Wood faces a true test on Wednesday night.

In Sunday’s match with Puerto Rico, Wood scored his fifth international goal. It was a calm finish for the Hamburg striker, who enters the Copa America as hot as any player on the U.S. roster.

Against Ecuador, Wood now faces a defense with the tools to stop him. Currently second in CONMEBOL qualifying, Ecuador has already earned shutouts against Argentina and Bolivia while limiting Uruguay and Venezuela to one goal apiece. Ecuador may not have the names of some of their South American counterparts, but La Tricolor has proven a menace to some of the region’s top teams throughout an impressive qualifying run.

Throughout his USMNT tenure, Wood has shown his ability to step up and score in big games. Friendly goals against Germany and the Netherlands have proven as memorable as any since the 2014 World Cup and, while Wednesday’s match is anything but a make or break, Wood will get another chance to show his ability to step up for the USMNT.

Comments

  1. Could it be that the formation on Sunday against P.R. wasn’t due to JK only having DM available, but was in fact a dry run for the tournament? Remember the World Cup, JJ played left side of the diamond. Perhaps Bradley will be moved to the right, with Beckerman the #6 and Bedoya or Pulisic in the #10 spot. Push Yedlin and FJ forward and let the midfielders cover. It may be the only way to get all of these guys on the field. Dempsey and Wood up top.

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    • Something similar to this is what was most successful for us in World Cup 2014. Since then, however, it has not worked. Teams have figured out how to beat us by attacking our flanks, which are left wide open, then crossing to the middle where our centerbacks constantly lose their marks and leave opposing players open shots. Our fullback weaknesses are a big part of that problem, so maybe an improved Yedlin and a 100% Fabian will be enough to change that. If we lose either one, then I think that system must be scrapped for a more traditional 4-4-2.

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  2. I’ve never like the pairing of Jones and Bradley, mostly because neither of them are play makers and both like to shoot from distance. Jones has 58 caps to just three goals, but yet he takes as many shots as some of the forwards.

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    • Stuart Holden will never be available, Hyndman and Zelalem aren’t ready, and Nagbe hasn’t yet proven himself on the international stage. Basically, that position has been a problem since Reyna retired. Likewise, except for the couple of years when DeMarcus Beasley made the successful switch, we have had a weakness at LB for at least a decade.

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      • I don’t disagree, what’s been frustrating is when guys have come in that could be that play maker they’ve been either pushed to the wings or to the deep midfield role. Diskerud, Nguyen, Bedoya, Fielhaber, Kljestan, and now Nagbe.

  3. That likely throws Birnbaum into the lineup, giving the D.C. United star a chance to build on several strong appearances with the team in January and against Guatemala.

    Safe to say this is the assessment to most and a welcomed opportunity.

    A fairly straight forward concept on how players acquire experience, acclimate to the level of play and earn caps. Even if the sample size is limited Birnbaum has earned the chance it in absence of Cameron – especially since these are glorified friendlies and not World Cup qualifying.

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      • …”in absence of Cameron</i" is regarding the immediate absence of Cameron however long that may be. If this injury persists through the start of the Copa Centenario or happens to resurface that statement still applies (or until he starts to make a costly error every single match he's capped).

  4. “Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones remain two of the USMNT’s best players, but the duo has never truly shined when played as a pairing”. While this is the conventional wisdom, is my memory faulty, but didn’t those two play together in the WC qualifying in 2013 and the World Cup in 2014? In qualifying we won the Hex with our highest total ever and then got out of the toughest group in the WC. Maybe that’s not truly shining, but it seems like it does the job to me.

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    • should read – “never truly ended up exactly how fans imagined – and if it ever did, nobody want to remember that”

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    • As I recall, Bradley was arguably one of our worst players on the pitch throughout the World Cup (and in the build up – most wrote this off as injury while others wrote this off as positioning) and Jones was arguably our best player throughout the World Cup.

      Your implication is we finished high because of the pairing or we finished high while they were paired? In this case, correlation doesn’t imply causation. The pairing has rarely, if ever, shined as a unit but there has been many times the individual shined.

      Most often Jones or Bradley “shined” when paired with Beckerman and not one another.

      Reply
      • While there are many other factors involved, you can’t say that it proves the opposite–that we would have done better without playing them together. The results would seem to indicate that it didn’t hurt us and it begs the question, what was the alternative if they are two of your best players? As for Bradley, this has been gone over many times and as I have pointed out repeatedly we had no better options to him playing as a playmaker.

      • While there are many other factors involved, you can’t say that it proves the opposite–that we would have done better without playing them together.

        I’m not making an argument one way or the other, though – I’m simply stating it’s a view that doesn’t really merit any tangible conclusion on either end of the spectrum.

        Again, Bradley had a horrible World Cup and Jones picked up the slack for the midfield and for the team. What does that mean? Who knows, but it certainly doesn’t prove they “shined” because the overall team had success.

        …what was the alternative if they are two of your best players?

        There is no alternative, unfortunately. I’ve said that for years.

      • Sorry, Gary. I tend to agree more with Old School on this one. Now, to be fair, I can’t sit here and say I “know” of a pairing or group of players that would have been better because it just didn’t happen. However, I believe that when Cameron and Bradley were paired, their roles were more defined and they did “shine” as a tandem and not just as individuals. During the WC (and going to the Germany game), I definitely thought Bradley was poor for most of the tournament. Jones was our ace in the hole. Thing is, these guys go back and forth. Maybe they are trying to work together and they think too similarly, so they put themselves in the same areas, which ultimately hurts us, or they are being told to play a particular style and their roles are not as defined. When you have a Cameron, Beckerman, etc. in the CDM spot in front of the back 4, regardless of who they pair with, it tends to go a bit more smoothly. I think Bradley and Jones can do the same thing, but JK likes Bradley forward and I think he is better off as a destroyer. His motor, athleticism, and tackling can all be used well in that position. Plus, he tends to be a decent passer of the ball when he has time and space. Jones is a yellow card waiting to happen in front of the back four and his passing and skill on the ball are better than Bradley. I say you let him stay forward. Otherwise, you run a 3 CDM set, which is what we often do. It isn’t fluid, but it has some defensive coverage. Granted, that also invites pressure and we haven’t been all that great on the counter ever since LD retired.

        So, the point is while we don’t have much of a sample size for other pairings, I think we may be better off when the two of them are not on the field together or you give them very clearly defined roles and ensure they aren’t constantly going out of position without the other covering. Let Jones roam forward and keep Bradley to pass out of the back and defend the back four.

        Lastly, during the WC, we had Mix who could have been in a forward midfield role (he was playing better at the time). But, again, if he and Bradley were together, JK would put Bradley up higher, which makes no sense to me, but whatever. That ultimately didn’t go well since you leave the player who is better on the ball in front of the back 4. I suppose you could have also introduced Bedoya or Zusi in that role as well, but that didn’t happen. Yet again, JK did try later on to put Bedoya as a CDM with Bradley, and that was a nightmare.

        Anyways, just my thoughts on the matter. Who knows, though?

    • They did played together but they were not alone, there was always a 6 helping them out. I think Jones also played some LM.

      Reply

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