The United States’ Copa America Centenario tune-up against Ecuador was … lacking. It was lacking a lot, most notably excitement and entertainment. So it was hard to take much from the match, but the Americans may have learned one thing – their attack starts from the base of their midfield.
The first half was an abject attacking disaster, not just from the U.S., but Ecuador as well. Nobody did much of anything. And the Americans didn’t start the second half much better, but a pair of halftime substitutions – bringing on Darlington Nagbe and Bobby Wood, which put Michael Bradley in a deeper midfield role – eventually paid off.
With the captain deeper, and a technical player like Nagbe in the team, the U.S. was able to establish some possession and work the ball around from deep on the pitch. In fact, one of their best chances came on a move that started with a Bradley and Nagbe one-two and the duo’s ability to combine, settle things down and then open up the field is what changed the match.
It may seem crazy that the key to an attack is what happens 50, 60 or even 70 yards from goal, but that’s what it looked like for the U.S. There they were able to gain control of the match, which allowed them to find time and space on the ball, move with speed and later in moves, force the Ecuador defenders to deal with tracking runners. It also put the ball on Bradley’s foot more often with space in front of him, giving him the option of long diagonals that stretched the Ecuador midfield. Everything started from deep.
The U.S. also benefitted from the introductions of Wood and Christian Pulisic, but that’s no surprise. Wood looks like the team’s best striker and Pulisic was dynamic for Borussia Dortmund in the spring. It was Wood who nodded the ball to Nagbe for the winning goal and Pulisic who showed off the best footwork in the contest. Even still, they would have struggled in the space, or lack thereof, that was available to American attackers in the first half.
It’s important not to draw giant conclusions from this match and that’s especially true from the last half-hour. Ecuador looked like a disinterested team full of players who were tired from a long club season. They had no urgency and spent chunks of the match slowly jogging around. It’s not as if the Americans went out and found the key to success against a high-level opponent, because Ecuador were playing far from their best.
Still, the U.S. did find something, at least on this low-key night. They found that their attacks start deep and that the key to getting chances on goal starts with their ability to dictate with the ball from their own half. That seems bizarre, but it fits with Jurgen Klinsmann’s desire to be "proactive."
Bradley in a deeper role looks like the key. Giving him a technical player like Nagbe, who can drop deep and contribute 50 yards from goal as effectively as he can 10 yards from goal, appeared vital. Being able to win the match with the ball in their own half might be how the United States kickstarts their attack heading into Copa America Centenario.
In a match that offered little and from which we learned next to nothing, that may have been the one light to shine on this American team. It’s not exactly revelatory, especially when it comes to ditching the idea of Bradley as a No. 10, but it’s the first time this group of players have played together and it comes just nine days before Copa America. Run with it for now.