Orlando City Stadium was decked out Thursday with bright red banners proclaiming “The Future is US,” the slogan of a youthful U.S. national squad.
Maybe a better slogan would be “The Future is Coming.” Or even “Watch this Space.”
Because although the long-term future does indeed appear bright for the rebuilding team, even the players can’t say how long it will take for them to get there.
“I’m not sure,” defender Matt Miazga said. “We have to see how we perform in the games because that’s the measure of our success. It’s the start of a new cycle. A new staff, a new regime.
“We’re trying to build a new culture and a new identity for our national team program. We know it’s not going to be smooth sailing.”
There was little rough water on the new team’s maiden voyage, though, with Gyasi Zardes’ goal in the 81st minute giving the U.S. a 1-0 victory over Ecuador in a game the Americans dominated everywhere but on the scoreboard.
It was the first step for a national team trying to learn a challenging style of play with a new roster and a new coach. And it was just a baby step.
But at least it was a step in the right direction.
“Overall, when you look at the information we’ve given the guys in the last two days we’re pleased with the performance,” said coach Gregg Berhalter, whose team spent as much time in meetings and video sessions this week as it did on the field.
“It’s a good starting point. So we’re pleased.”
Although the team played — and won — its first two friendlies under Berhalter earlier this winter, the roster for those games was limited to players from MLS clubs. For Thursday’s game, Berhalter had access to his entire player pool for the first time. So going in, the coach said, the goal was to use the game to gather material with which to evaluate the full team players.
And it was a game had a little bit of everything: the team dominated possession behind some nice passing from an active back four led by John Brooks, got solid midfield play from Wil Trapp, had some creative build-up sequences up front and got enough stout defense to keep Sean Johnson from having to make a save in goal, giving the U.S. its third shutout in as many games this year.
Berhalter also gave the Bundesliga-based foundation of the future — defender Tyler Adams and midfielders Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie, all just 20 years old — their first starts together.
The trio lasted an hour before Pulisic, whose flashy ball handling was especially impressive, was subbed off after 62 minutes. McKennie limped off between two trainers moments later and needed a stretcher to get to the locker room after rolling his left ankle.
Berhalter said McKennie was scheduled to have an X-ray and an MRI late Thursday. He’ll probably return to his club team in Germany rather than accompany the U.S. to Houston for next week’s friendly with Chile.
What the game lacked was offense, with the U.S. repeatedly faltering in the final third and wasting a number of promising scoring chances. Zardes’ goal came on just the second on-target shot of the game — and if it hadn’t caromed off the leg of defender Robert Arboleda, it might have missed too.
The play started with Tim Ream sending a pass from the center stripe to Zardes, who found himself with tons of the space in the center of the field. The former Galaxy forward dribbled unmolested to the top of the penalty area before hitting a right-footed shot that struck Arboleda and bounced high in the air, eluding backpedaling Ecuadoran keeper Alexander Dominguez and slipping just under the bar.
That Thursday’s win was the just the first tiny step on a much longer journey was obvious more than an hour after the game, when more than a dozen U.S. players continued to train and run wind sprints in the empty stadium.
“I’m really proud of the effort,” Berhalter said. “I’m proud of the openness to try things and to try to execute the movements. If some of the timing’s off, that’s all right.
“We made a good step. Now we have to move forward.”