ORLANDO — Gregg Berhalter and the U.S. men’s national soccer team request your patience.
With a new coach, the elevation of young players into prominent roles and the implementation of a pragmatic system, the rebuilding efforts in the wake of the 2018 World Cup qualifying disaster are in full swing.
Berhalter’s third match at the helm — and first with all players available — went down Thursday with a third consecutive shutout victory, 1-0 over Ecuador on Gyasi Zardes’s deflected goal in the 81st minute.
The victory capped a decent performance, but in the broader scheme, the match was more about the process of setting the program back on course. Positive results in inconsequential games are nice, but there is a larger plan at work.
Berhalter said he told his team he was “proud of the effort, proud of the openness to try things and try to execute the movements. If some of the timing is off, that is all right, as long as they recognize the moments and are trying to do it. ... We made a good step. Now we have material to evaluate and move forward.”
Berhalter and his players get it: Fans want to win now — external urgency in the joyless aftermath of that fateful night in Trinidad and Tobago 17 months ago.
But at the start of a new World Cup cycle, Berhalter has a long runway to get it right. He is halfway through a slate of six friendlies — the remaining stops are Houston, D.C. and Cincinnati — before entering this year’s important, if not win-or-else, tournaments (Concacaf’s Gold Cup and Nations League).
This, however, is not a Washington-to-Philadelphia Acela ride; it’s a New York-to-Tokyo flight.
Ideally, Berhalter would like to both further the program and, in an effort to regain the public’s trust and enthusiasm, win a few matches. The primary objective, however, is to install the system, test the players and forge bonds in time for the 2022 World Cup qualifying quest.
“When you’ve had the year or two we’ve had, there is real motivation from every guy to start to put that all right — to play well, to win, to show individually what you are about and what part you can play,” veteran midfielder Michael Bradley said. “On the flip side, it’s March of 2019, and in the big picture, these are friendly games, and it’s still important we are building a team. Everybody has the right amount of patience and understanding with what Gregg is trying to do.”
His mission began with an MLS-exclusive winter camp — those toiling abroad were not available — and continued in this nine-day FIFA window with players from MLS, plus the European and Mexican leagues.
In introducing his ideas, Berhalter acknowledged, “We know it’s not going to be perfect.”
On Thursday, the Americans executed Berhalter’s possession-heavy plan but did not generate many prime chances before the announced crowd of 17,442 at Orlando City Stadium.
“We created a number of half-chances that should have amounted to more,” he said. “Overall, when you look at the amount of information we have given the guys in the last two days, we are pleased with the performance. It’s a good starting point for this group.”
It was a good starting point for the defense, which restricted Ecuador’s attempts to mount attacks through possession and gobbled up long balls.
It was also a good starting point for Tyler Adams, Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie, 20-year-olds from Bundesliga clubs who started together at the senior level for the first time.
Pulisic left the match early in the second half by design so he could start again Tuesday against Chile. McKennie was forced out midway through the second half after badly turning his left ankle. He was scheduled to undergo an MRI exam and X-rays after the game, though Berhalter said the team believes he suffered a sprain.
Until Zardes’s goal, the best opportunity for either team came midway through the first half when D.C. United’s Paul Arriola should have scored. Pulisic’s touch placed the ball in Arriola’s unobstructed path on the back side, but the shot was too close to Alexander Dominguez, who made a foot save.
On the goal, Zardes’s 25-yard shot deflected off defender Robert Arboleda, took flight over Dominguez and caromed off the underside of the crossbar for his seventh international goal.
For sure, it was an accidental goal. But the outcome was perhaps reward for Berhalter’s ambition.
“It’s a breath of fresh air,” said defender Tim Ream, Thursday’s captain. “Before, it was, ‘Let’s qualify by any means necessary,’ chopping and changing, switching things up. Whatever it took. [Berhalter] is focused on playing a certain way and sticking to it.”