ORLANDO -- United States men's national team manager Gregg Berhalter said he was proud of his team's effort in a 1-0 win over Ecuador, even as it struggled to turn its territorial domination into goals.
The home side prevailed on Gyasi Zardes' deflected effort in the 81st minute, but the U.S. was in control for much of the night, holding Ecuador to just one shot at goal. Given the U.S. had just three practices beforehand, Berhalter said he was pleased with the performance.
"I credited the guys in the locker room, I said I'm really proud of the effort, I'm proud of the openness to try things and to try to execute the movements," he said. "And if some of the timing is off, that's all right. As long as they recognized the moments and are trying to do it."
Ecuador operated out of a low block defensively and tried to hit the U.S. on the counter. And even with Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams all making their first starts under Berhalter, this strategy created some difficulty in terms of chance creation for the U.S.
The home side did create a great opportunity in the 26th minute, with an intricate exchange of passes setting up Paul Arriola for a clear look at goal, but Ecuador keeper Alexander Dominguez thwarted the resulting shot. And though Wil Trapp was able to release Arriola on a few other occasions, the U.S. was not able to break through for a goal until late.
"I thought in the first half we created some good moves, and were able to penetrate around the edge and get the ball in front of goal," Berhalter said. "We were unlucky not to score with Paul [Arriola] in the first half, and created a number of, I'd say, half chances that should have amounted to more. Overall, I think when you look at the amount of information we've given the guys in the last two days, we're pleased with the performance. It's a good starting point for this group."
Berhalter added he was pleased with the team's defensive effort. The center back tandem of John Brooks and Aaron Long was rarely troubled, and when called upon managed to keep Ecuador's attackers in check.
"Overall, our collective defense was good. We didn't really give them any openings," Berhalter said. "They couldn't find penetrating passes. They resorted to long balls and those guys gobbled everything up. I think from a team standpoint, I was happy with the defensive shape, happy with the structure. It was good that our center backs, even when they were up the field, can win every duel that comes out. It was really impressive."
The biggest lowlight of the night for the U.S. came midway through the second half when McKennie fell awkwardly after attempting to head the ball away. The midfielder appeared to sprain his left ankle, though Berhalter said the player would undergo an MRI as well as have X-rays taken.
"Everyone feels bad for Weston and the injury, no question," Berhalter said. "But we realize that's part of our sport. When you lace up the boots and go out there and compete, there is some injury risk. This was a strange play where he went up for the header and the opponent didn't go up and challenge, so he bent over and that resulted in Weston tumbling over him and twisting his ankle. We hope that it's not as severe as it could be, and we're going to get it evaluated tonight."
Zardes' goal, coming after an Ecuador turnover and a quick pass forward from U.S. captain Tim Ream, left the U.S. with a better feeling.
"We've done zero work on offensive transition, and we were able to score in an offensive transition. That was good," Berhalter said. "But I think on the day, [if] we're a little bit sharper on some plays, a little bit more precise, then we end up breaking them down. What I really liked from the guys is the effort to continue to try to break then down in a way that we're giving them.
"I thought in the second half we could have operated with more diagonal balls, especially as we got them to shift to one side. Later in the game they dropped Valencia back into a back five to protect that, but that was space we could have exploited a little bit better."