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USMNT 1, Ecuador 0: The SBI Breakdown

Photo by Sean Pokorny/USA TODAY Sports
Photo by Sean Pokorny/USA TODAY Sports

The U.S. Men’s National Team’s performance against Ecuador was anything but perfect, but it did answer a few burning questions heading into this summer’s Copa America.

A late Darlington Nagbe winner proved the difference for the U.S., who emerged from halftime with a comprehensive second half performance in a 1-0 win. As lackluster as the first half was, the second 45 was equally as impressive as the U.S. played some of their best soccer against the South American contender.

Playing without Geoff Cameron, the defense conceded few chances against a tricky Ecuador attack, as John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin stood out on the backline. After a disjointed first half, the USMNT midfield four their rhythm via Nagbe and Bradley, who pulled the strings behind second half substitute Bobby Wood.

Overall, Wednesday’s performance was one that left plenty of improvement, but also provided several positives for Jurgen Klinsmann. Just several days away from the start of the Copa America, the USMNT’s latest performance provided a peak of what could be when Klinsmann’s side takes the field for this summer’s tournament.

Here’s a look at five takeaways from Wednesday’s USMNT victory over Ecuador:


For years, the USMNT midfield has provided more questions than answers, but it appears Klinsmann has found a major answer in the form of Darlington Nagbe.

In just his sixth international start, the Portland Timbers midfielder provided his first international goal in the 90th minute to lead the USMNT to a deserved victory. A major reason that victory was a deserved one was because of Nagbe, who stepped in off the bench in the second half and proved one of several players to turn the tide.

In particular, Nagbe’s efficiency on the ball was a highlight. The midfielder completed each and every one of his 33 pass attempts, as the U.S. emerged as a more in-control side as the game wore on. After struggling to maintain possession, the USMNT finally had an outlet in Nagbe, who was decisive, quick and, overall, flawless on the ball on Wednesday night.

Wednesday’s performance demonstrated that Nagbe is fully deserving of a starting role moving forward. Facing a contender in Ecuador, the USMNT looked infinitely better with Nagbe on the field, and the team would be better suited for the rigors of the Copa America with the Timbers star helping to lead the charge.


Michael Bradley has never truly had a set position with the USMNT, although that should change going forward.

After a lackluster first half in front of Kyle Beckerman, Bradley spent the second 45 in a No. 6 role that has become familiar on the club level. Played a bit deeper, Bradley thrived in a position that he should be playing much more often going forward.

In total, Bradley completed 61 out of 65 passes on Wednesday night, an astonishing statistic for any playmaker. Defensively, made a pair of tackles while helping to marshall the midfield against a tricky Ecuador team that has given South America’s best fits in recent months.

Heading into the Copa America, Bradley’s best role is that of a No. 6, with players like Nagbe, Alejandro Bedoya and Jermaine Jones in front of him. After years of uncertainty, Wednesday provided a glimpse at what Bradley could produce when put in a position to succeed.


DeAndre Yedlin’s game grew leaps and bounds in 2016 as the fullback became a Premier League regular with Sunderland. Wednesday’s matchup with a Premier League winger produced just another highlight of how far the 22-year-old defender has come.

Facing off with Swansea City winger Jefferson Montero, Yedlin was resolute throughout the opening 45 minutes. The USMNT fullback showed capably in a series of one-on-one situations, timing his moves just right against a player that has proven tricky in recent years. Just a short time ago, Yedlin would have had his hands full with the Ecuadorian star. But on Wednesday, Yedlin repeatedly outfoxed an attacker that repeatedly skinned Matt Miazga’s Chelsea just over a month ago.

Yedlin showed improvement on the attacking end as well. On the decisive goal, Yedlin started the play by embarrassing his defender before whipping in a dangerous cross. Forcing the Ecuador defense into a tough situation kickstarted the sequence that led to Nagbe’s finish and, ultimately, the win.

In each and every game he plays, Yedlin looks just a bit more confident and decisive on both sides of the ball, a fact that bodes well heading into the Copa America.


The cries for Christian Pulisic will only grow louder after Wednesday’s match.

Given limited minutes off the bench, Pulisic looked comfortable and confident against a legitimate team in Ecuador. On the ball, the Borussia Dortmund star was fearless, while Pulisic never looked physically overmatched against players with much more experience than he possesses.

The 17-year-old’s best sequence came in the game’s dying moments. On the ball deep in his own midfield, Pulisic whisked past two defenders with a combination of technique and physicality while helping the U.S. all but end the game.

It may be a bit too soon to pencil Pulisic into the starting XI against Colombia, but expect Pulisic to at least get an increased run out against Bolivia following yet another positive performance.


Gyasi Zardes has a part to play for the USMNT, but it shouldn’t come in a starting role.

The LA Galaxy forward earned the start on Wednesday, and showed spurts of what make him a legitmate threat on the international stage. However, Zardes’ deficiencies were also in full view against a team much like what lies ahead in the Copa America.

Once again, Zardes’ speed and power proved dangerous for the U.S., but the forward’s heavy touch proved his downfall on Wednesday night. Played in early by Clint Dempsey, Zardes’ mistouch all but killed what turned out to be the USMNT’s best attack of the first 45.

Given his physical abilities, Zardes will be able to test even the best of defenders at this summer’s tournaments. However, with more technical players at the USMNT’s disposal, Zardes is best suited for a role off the bench, where he can make full use of his abilities against a tired defense.


  1. It is good to see Bradley given the role he always seems to gravitate to. I always thought a player should play the way is natural for him if he is going to thrive, too many coaches have tried to force him into another role and that he still managed to do fine is a great tribute to his talent and flexibility.

    He was never a reckless attacker, even at the U-17 WC when he was a forward, he tended to play in a way that minimized his team’s vulnerability should they lose possession. In Brazil, that was seen time and time again as he continually drifted back to help regain (or maintain) possession.

    He is not a traditional number 6 in the sense that he is not an aggressive tackler; but he is big,solid and wins a lot pf balls without punishing the opponents physically. He sometimes makes a bone-headed play that the referee will punish (last night’s last play, getting a 2nd yellow in the Olympics for time wasting; there are other examples). He does have to watch his tendency to push the limits of what the referee will allow in dangerous situations. Still, he is so smart in in his ability to be available as an outlet for any teammate who is in trouble, it is hard to fault him for those shortcomings. Further last night, he made a great recovery run (and faster than I recall him being) that caused an Ecuadorian attacker to rush and misplay a ball that should have had him in on goal.

    He can hit long accurate passes to spring teammates something Beckermann and Jones try but are less likely to pull off successfully; that is a big positive for the US as it can setup the possibility of quick counter-attacks on a routine basis.

    Now, let’s just hope JK sees what we saw last night and that the experiment of Bradley as a #10 is over, at long last.

  2. In the evaluations such as Pulisic vs. Zardes, success of Dempsey, etc. you need to take into account how different the US was in the second half vs. the first. Bobby Wood also had a heavy touch right in front of goal that denied a perfect goal scoring opportunity, yet only Zardes gets criticism here. Pulisic looked good, at least in part, because he had Nagbe making good passes to him. In the first half the forwards were pretty much starved for service. When the US changed its approach the game opened up and the insertion of Nagbe made a huge difference. I would just say don’t discount Zardes too soon, since he is a hard worker who will get better. When Zardes plays for the Galaxy his first touch is much better. I don’t know if the difference is nervousness or too much adrenaline, but those of us who watch him every week are not so quick to criticize him and it is probably why Klinsmann values him highly.

    • Agree on Zardes, though his USMNT tenure has been really frustrating to watch. Not sure what the problem is (pressing too hard trying to impress?). He just needs to be self aware and find a way to concentrate on fixing some of his deficiencies. If he keeps playing that way, JK has to go a different direction at some point.

      You are right it wasn’t just Zardes, Dempsey had multiple flails, Wood had one too, more than enough bumbling in front of goal all night … In the end it was a meaningless friendly, and the only meaning I took from it was some hope – The Kids are Alright!

    • I suspect Zardes is still having trouble adjusting to the faster speed of play internationally compared to MLS. I know from experience that a big step up in the speed of the game makes it much harder to get your feet ready in time to play the ball so the ball just bounces off, as is if you have wooden legs.

    • Everyone is entitled an occasional off/heavy touch. The game is fast and no one is perfect. Overall Wood’s touches are good whereas Zardes’ touches are often more heavy than not.
      Wood’s goal vs. PR was similar to the setup Clint gave Zardes. Wood scores with a good touch and a little chip. Zardes’ first touch puts the ball 20 ft ahead of him and the opportunity is lost.

  3. agree on all points. would add on that Brooks showed he is ready to start next to Cameron. also, Birnbaum showed that he is capable, but not yet ready. some of that is likely due to little chemistry with Brooks and Yedlin, but overall i think it’s safe to say Brooks/Cameron has to be the starting CB pairing moving forward if they are injury free.

  4. Based on the game, would go with:
    Wood – Dempsey – Bedoya/Zusi
    Nagbe – Jones
    F.Johnson – G.Cameron – Brooks/Besler – Yedlin

    The question becomes, who do you pull off to get Pulisic in the game?

    • i think your lineup is likely what we see, but i can see Pulisic taking your “Bedoya/Zusi” spot. Zusi actually had a good game, but not sure he will start. if Pulisic were to take that forward spot, that leaves Jones and Bedoya fighting for that RCM spot. which i actually think is perfect. given Bedoya’s role at Nantes and Jones’ at Colorado, it makes sense for those two to be competing for that box-to-box role (in that 4-3-3 formation).for Bolivia, i hope we see:


  5. the outcomes/realizations after that game are all very positive and helpful. looking forward to watching a Bradley-anchored midfield with Nagbe leading the attack vs. Boliva and into the Copa!

  6. Having followed the USMNT since 1988, I can honestly say that we have never had a midfielder with the quality of Darlington Nagbe.

    That pass he gave Pulisic in the corner was mouth watering. He not only makes the pass, they are weighted passes that teammates can use. He finds seams that no one else can.

    He is the most technical midfielder we have ever had on the field. He is an exception to the MLS players with his technical ability. Yes, Pulisic has the potential to be a great player for us.

    I think we witnessed the passing of the torch from the 1st half to the 2nd half. The older guys showed their limitations, the newer guys are showing their potential.

    Yedlin is a different player for sure. No props for the 1 v 1 where it totally stole the ball from Montero in the corner? He would not be where he is for the year he had at Sunderland.

    • Nagbe is smooth and in control. He is a classic USMNT player in that he is not full of himself and will do what it takes to help the team. He will win balls back, take fouls, etc. Love this guy.

      That outside-of-the-foot bender into the corner was slick. That play was coming right at me in the corner and I thought that Nagbe had put himself in a bind and then he gently bent the ball out of the reach of two defenders and right into Pulisics path, just slowly dying so it didn’t go over the touch line.

      Nagbe is our #10, IMO.

    • As someone who has followed the USMNT since 1978, I hope you are right. In my view Tab Ramos was the best MF to ever wear the shirt. I hope Nagbe eclipses him.

    • Followed the USMNT since 90. I would say Tab Ramos, and John OBrien were the best going forward, but I like Nagle as well. I cannot believehow much less he makes compare to some other players on television league. Portland should pay if he who’s well in Copa or he is gone (this is PROFESSIONAL soccer). I think it is recognized as well because a survey of MLS players voted as the most underrated player.

      • Timbers fan here, and ultimately I agree.

        We have benefited twice from the “hometown discount” (nation really) in that Nagbe told Vancouver he didn’t want to play there as his goal was to become a US Citizen and playing in Canada would have derailed that. He has happily stayed to see that dream to fruition and continues to happily play for his long time coach in Caleb Porter.

        Long term, if we plan to keep him, most certainly he will need DP money (but he is also really comfortable where he is and has made no mention about going abroad – he’ll be 26 this summer and in some ways it might be not a great decision if he goes somewhere where he spends 2-3 years being uncomfortable and not playing).

        He looked really good last night (he looked really good earlier this week too). He sometimes disappears though. Some fans get frustrated when he gets possession and cycles the ball backward rather than looking to dribble or press. It will be interesting to see if the international game allows him to be a little more aggressive since in MLS when he beats defenders on the dribble they just routinely hack him down from behind and take the fouls.

    • I hope you’re right, but Nagbe has some stiff competition in the “most technical midfielder ever” race in Tab Ramos and Claudio Reyna.

    • Nagbe has had one very good game. And it was a friendly. On the biggest stage possible, the World cup, Claudio Reyna and John O’Brien were standouts.And Reyna played for much better club teams in much better leagues than Nagbe. Typical SBI response–knight a player after one good game. Maybe Nagbe will end up being their equals, but it’s way too early to tell.

  7. As the article states, last night did provide an answer (at least for me) to what our best midfield set up is: Bradley as the 6 and Nagbe and Jones (or Bedoya) ahead of him.

    The question, however, that last night’s game left me with was: What’s our best forward setup with that three-man midfield behind them? Essentially, our personnel seems well-suited to a three-man midfield but our personnel does not seem well-suited to a three-man front line. Dempsey was on an island in the first half and I don’t think his attributes are utilized in that lone striker role (See the 2014 WC). Dempsey showed flashes of what he does best when Zardes would move into the middle and Dempsey would be underneath him. Wood also didn’t seem particularly suited to the lone striker role in the second half.

    So do you play two forwards with Dempsey underneath roaming wherever he wants? A forward pairing of Dempsey-Wood (Zardes) with Zusi (Pulisic) switching sides as a wide outlet?

    With the assumption that we play a 3-man midfield, any thoughts on an effective forward line?

    • I like Pulisic-Dempsey-Wood because that gives Dempsey the ability to float back, open up space and look for the runners as he does so well. Bedoya’s game from the wing doesn’t have enough bite to the inside.

    • FJ-Wood-Pulisic would be my choice, or FJ-Dempsey-Wood with Pulisic coming in for Dempsey in the 60th minute. I think Dempsey will look less stranded with a midfield that can possess the ball, but I’m still not sure we wouldn’t be better with the first option. I’m willing to give Chandler a shot at left back against Bolivia and see if he can do it.

      • I agree that FJ should be playing that left wing spot. His influence and impact from LB is decreased and in my opinion he’s not that great of a defender. I don’t think Jurgen agrees with me. FJ contributions from the left wing greatly outweigh my concerns with Chandler as LB.

    • i have a slightly different take. in the WC, we played a clear 4-5-1 variation with Dempsey playing that true target role. this, however, was different. i think if you pair Pulisic, Wood, and Dempsey, there is something there. maybe in a 4-4-2 with Wood/Dempsey and Pulisic/Nagbe/Bradley/Bedoya making up the midfield.

  8. IMO…the winners from last night:
    Nagbe – Was able to calmly be an outlet for the defense. Helped maintain possession and switch the point of attack. His calmness on the ball and ability to quickly turn up-field helped the US to open up the field for the other attackers.
    Wood – His speed combined with the runs he made forced Ecuadorian defenders to get pulled out of position. This opened up lanes on the outside for Yedlin, Zusi, & Bedoya to become more involved in the game. His determination (grit) also assisted in forcing Ecuador to make hasty passes out of the back, allowing the US to regain possession further up the field.
    Pulisic – Proved his inclusion in the team and has really opened up the discussion on if he should be a starter (or how soon it will be). His ability to take players on 1 vs 1 was expected….but his ability to defend, retain possession, and shield the ball were questionable to many. Last night he proved that he is a complete player. Now just needs to do it consistently and he’ll quickly be a starter for us.
    Yedlin – A little shaky defensively to start, but settled in and was strong after the first 20 minutes or so. Amazing how much he progressed after 1 full year in England. If he keeps this up he’ll be a lock-down RB for years with the USMNT.
    Losers from last night:
    Beckerman – Was again exposed for his lack of speed. In the 2nd half when Bradley stepped back into the #6 role everything the US did sped up and was more fluid. We were able to press higher up the field and weren’t sitting so deep once Beckerman was replaced w/ Nagbe.
    Zardes – showed again that he’s got no touch. He may have all the physical tools (size, speed, strength) but until he can refine his touch he’s not much use against higher level competition. He’s a CONCACAF starter or a 2nd half sub to take advantage of tired legs.
    Dempsey – Last night showed that once again if he’s not fully engaged in the game he becomes fairly invisible. For all the grief we give Jozy for jogging around in matches…that’s exactly what Dempsey was doing last night. He also tends to drop too deep into the midfield which takes space away from his teammates. The time is fast approaching when Dempsey will be a bench player or off the 23 entirely.

    • couldn’t agree more with you…..we have some talent to do damage this summer in Copa but it comes down to JK getting the personnel and tactics right from game to game, which unfortunately he hasn’t shown the capacity to do.

    • i certainly think Dempsey left a ton to be desired, but he had no help. Zardes was queued up beautifully by Dempsey but Zardes has no touch. add on that Nagbe and Pulisic were not in yet, it’s hard to know if Dempsey should be benched. i think if you had Dempsey and Wood paired together with Nagbe, Pulisic, Bradley, and Bedoya/Jones supporting them, there would be something there. when Dempsey actually got the ball, he looked creative. unfortunately Zardes killed the few chances created while Zusi and Dempsey seemed to be on different pages.

  9. There is a real cohesive team to be found – I want to know what this 10 can do over 70-75 minutes:


    • Yes. I second your suggestion.

      Another player who stood out in person last night was Jones. The guy is strong in every aspect of the game. He sees the game well and tries game-breaking plays. Not only that but he’s a great athlete.

      You look at Jones and see what a player looks like who could play in any league in the world.

      He and Bradley strike you in similar ways.

      • Honestly, I think at this stage in his career, at this level of competition, Clint is a sub. Time to move on. Wood is better centrally.

    • I’d really like to see this too. You could also have Bedoya in for Jones (we know he’s not a deep CM, but he plays higher up in the center for his club). And damn, it would be nice if we had another LB so that we could see Fabian Johnson in the midfield. Imagine a midfield full of players who can complete passes!

  10. defense was very well, bradley good in number 6. Jones Ane beckerman out, please. zusi and zardes substitutes. wood, pulisic, nagbe absolutely best than players in starting XI

  11. The moment that really showed Pulisic’s quality was when he took an outlet pass from (i think) Fabian, and then immediately got pressured by two defenders. He didn’t panic, used his body well, and held the ball up and found until he found a pass to Bradley.

    It showed a level of composure on the ball that we often lack. It’s so important to have those players when you are forced to bunker against better opponents. I find it so frustrating Watching us when we have guys like Zardes on the wings; after 10-15 minutes of defending we finally gain possession, play a ball to Zardes, who is able to do nothing other than try to push the ball forward and then we quickly lose the ball again.

    There is just a composure and intelligence about Pulisic’s game that is well beyond his years. Let’s hope he keeps progressing. He’s going to be fun to watch if he does.

    • He’s a good kid by all appearances. He was the only player to stay outside the tunnel and greet fans/sign autographs.

      The other guy who was the most friendly and welcoming to fans was none other than Klinnsmann.

    • agreed, watching Zardes was infuriating last night. and then to see Pulisic come in and easily do what Zardes should have been able to do really showed the difference in quality. Zardes, for my money, is not only solely a bench option, he’s up against it for next camp. i’d gladly take Arriola over him.

  12. I thought much the same except I would add that Bobby Wood had a good game and looks to be earning the second striker slot with Dempsey, at least on a semi-regular basis. Though it’s going to be harder and harder to limit Pulisic to coming off the bench.

    • I was seated in view of Pulisic and Paredes at the game. Paredes is a very good player. Pulisic frustrated him and had him fidgeting with his shin guards when the ball was on the other side of the field. Pulisic is smooth with the ball on his foot and is constantly probing for ways to attack, even though his soccer mind is still very young. He has a mature understanding for such a young player.

      The more exposure that his teammates have to him the more they’ll see what he can do for them. When he gets the ball, he’s looking to set up an opportunity. You have to be of mind to attack with off the ball runs rather than to wait.

      It’s just so unexpected that a young guy like this can create opportunities with such regularity and relative ease.

  13. Aside from Nagbe being so clinical on the ball, my highlight was Pulisic fighting to win the ball back that he lost at midfield. He was relentless. That tenacity is just so damn refreshing after watching Dempsey for 60 mins.

  14. Good analysis. Not to be nitpicky but you can’t start and come off the bench at the same time. Just amend 6th international start to appearance.

    Grammar Nazi

  15. In full disclosure it was Yedlin’s early indecisiveness on the offensive end that led to a turnover and a very dangerous counter attack. He also was beaten a few times early by Montero and had to be bailed out by B&B. Overall, he got better as the night went on and let’s hope he builds on that going forward.

    • yeah, saying Yedlin “shined” is a stretch. He barely held his own defensively and didn’t provide much going forward. Overall though, that second half was very encouraging. Please please please keep MB at the 6 and Nagbe central.

      • i think the qualifier has to be he shined defensively. sure, he got beat a few times, but there wasn’t much that came from his side despite Ecuador clearing focusing on it. in fact, in the first half, it seemed we were only interested in attacking down our right side while Ecuador focused on attacking down their left. leaving Yedlin to have to do a ton of running. in the second half, that changed. we seemed to focus on attaching with FJ or through the middle.

    • I was at the game with a good view of Yedlin. The guy is insanely fast and is able to recover from mistakes in a flash. He ran guys down all night. He is also agile and has a strong base. He slides between his guy and the ball. He was not a problem in this game.

      The next step for him is to begin dominating offensively. That is asking him to be a Great Player, though. Those are high expectations. He’s already an extremely useful player who can rescue your team and add to the attack.

      • Thanks for the first-hand observations. I didn’t go back and watch the game, but Yedlin did seem to get beat down the wing a few times. That caught me by surprise, considering he’s our fastest player. Did it seem that way to you as well?

      • Yedlin may have allowed a cross or two, but I think it’s important to remember what his role is. He’s going to push up the field pretty deep. If he turns the ball over, there is space behind him. However, Yedlin does not have a primadonna attitude…he will chase back all day long. And last night he seemed to win just about all of those chase races. His closing speed is ridiculous. He gets the ball when he catches up, too.

        Watching him in person gave me a much better understanding of just what a good player this guy is. He is both insurance and attack. I’d say that neutral observers might see him as the most impressive player, especially given his youth.

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