United States midfielder Christian Pulisic (10) passes the ball during the first half of an international friendly soccer match against Ecuador, Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
ORLANDO, Fla. — It was the first time the promising young trio of Weston McKennie, Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams all started a match for the United States men’s national team.
For McKennie, it ended in disaster.
He was carried back to the locker room on a stretcher after injuring his left ankle during the second half of the 1-0 U.S. win over Ecuador in front of an announced crowd of 17,442 Thursday night at Orlando City Stadium.
While the victory was promising for the Americans, the loss of McKennie was a big setback. He is considered a key part of the future of the USMNT. He suffered the injury while trying to win a ball in the air.
“We’re going to get an MRI and an X-ray on him right now,” new U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said after the match. “We believe it’s a sprained ankle.”
He added, “I think everyone feels bad for Weston and the injury, but we all also realize that’s part of the 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, and 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.”
Adams said he, Pulisic and McKennie “love playing together.”
“So tough, right?” Adams said of McKennie’s injury. “You look at someone that’s had such a good season so far on a team that’s obviously not at their best like last season. He’s had so many ups, I think. More than downs in a side that’s not doing well. He’s come here and he’s played well all week long and he’s working hard.
“It’s never easy to see your teammate get injured, let alone a friend, my roommate. He’ll keep his head up and we know that he’ll come back stronger, but in the end, obviously, you just have to hope it’s nothing serious.”
Pulisic subbed off in the 62nd minute of the match, safely avoiding aggravating injuries that slowed him earlier this year. Berhalter said the plan was to limit Pulisic’s minutes in the match. Pulisic said he’s “totally fine.”
“We still have a lot of stuff we can work on, but yeah, I mean it was a good start,” Pulisic said. “It’s just everything, getting more familiar with the positions and just the speed of play and just, you know, making it kind of second nature so that everyone is really on the same page. That’s really just the main thing.”
After neither side created much in the way of chances throughout the contest — the United States finished the match with just two shots on target, while Ecuador didn’t have any — Columbus Crew forward Gyasi Zardes opened the scoring in the 81st minute.
Zardes fired a shot from outside the penalty area. It took a deflection off Ecuadorian defender Robert Arboleda. The ball went high into the air, bounced off the bottom of the crossbar and into the net, giving the U.S. a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
“In the air, I was like, ‘Go in, go in, go in!’ Sure enough, it went in,” Zardes said with a laugh. “You know, you’ve got to shoot. If you don’t shoot, you don’t score.”
The play was sparked by Tim Ream, who wore the captain’s armband for the first time in his men’s national team career. He intercepted a pass from Ecuadorian defender Gabriel Achilier and played the ball to Zardes.
The USMNT’s attack didn’t test Ecuador much before that goal. A solid sequence came in the 26th minute, when McKennie played the ball to Pulisic inside the penalty area and Pulisic got the ball to forward Paul Arriola.
Arriola got a shot off, but it was saved by Ecuador goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez.
Other than that, Ecuador continually managed to turn away the U.S.
Ecuador only took one shot in Thursday’s match. It was a decent look at the goal from defender Beder Caicedo in the 33rd minute, but he skied his shot over the crossbar. The match was the third shutout of the Berhalter era. The Americans closed the match with five shots.
“Overall, our collective defense, I thought, was good,” Berhalter said. “We didn’t really give them many openings. They couldn’t find penetrating passes. They resorted to long balls, and those guys gobbled everything up. So, I think from a team standpoint, I was happy with the defensive shape, happy with the structure, and it was good that our centerbacks, even when we’re up the field, they can win every duel that comes out. It was really impressive.”
Berhalter said he wanted to use Thursday’s match as a chance to gather more material to evaluate players, monitoring who grasped the concepts of his possession-based style. The USMNT finished the match with 89-percent passing accuracy and 62-percent possession.
“I credited the guys in the locker room,” Berhalter said. “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.’ And, ya know, if some of the timing’s off, that’s all right, as long as they recognize the moments and are trying to do it. I think, again, really tight window. I told the guys, these two games will be the most challenging games we have together as a group because of the lack of time playing Thursday instead of Friday and guys coming in late, and all that.
“So, overall happy. I think we made a good step. And we were talking before the game — now we have material to evaluate.”
Next, the USMNT plays Chile in a friendly on Tuesday at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston.