Considering its form and the forces apparently aligned against the U.S. national team just 10 days ago, a quarterfinal berth and a first-place finish in the Copa América Centenario’s most balanced group kind of feels like a triumph.
But it shouldn’t.
For a host nation that’s survived the group stage each of the past two World Cups, a 2-1-0 record and advancement to this tournament’s final eight is par. The Americans, despite the Copa-opening loss to Colombia, were expected to get this far, and winning Group A thanks to Costa Rica’s upset of Los Cafeteros is a pleasant bonus. But now comes the fork in the road—the moment that will define this tournament as well this juncture in coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure. He targeted the Copa semifinals, and the U.S. must beat Ecuador on Thursday evening in Seattle to get there. Lose, and it will be tough to argue that Klinsmann is any closer to challenging soccer’s elite than he was four years ago.
“We want to prove ourselves against the top nations from South America and we’re doing great so far. But this is a big-time game,” Klinsmann told the Seattle Sounders’ website. “Ecuador is top-15 in the world. This is a big team … It’s going to be a nail-biter. It’s going to be a 50-50 situation. They want to go badly now into the semis. We want to go badly in the semis.”
Indeed, Ecuador is ranked in FIFA’s top 15 (13th). Odds are, the team the U.S. will face if it qualifies for the knockout rounds at the 2018 World Cup won’t be much lower. La Tricolor is the sort of side the Americans should get used to beating, and this stage is one where victory must become habit if Klinsmann is to realize his ambitions. In 100 years, the U.S. has survived only two elimination matches against non-CONCACAF opposition. A win in Seattle would be borderline historic and as Klinsmann said, the U.S. wants it badly.
But Ecuador surely wants it badly, too. This opportunity is just as significant for La Tri, and their history is even uglier.
This will be Ecuador’s first trip to a Copa América quarterfinal since 1997. Since then, they’ve somehow managed to be one of the four teams eliminated from a 12-team group stage in six consecutive tournaments. La Tri’s long-term Copa history is just as miserable.
Economically, Ecuador is comparable to several South American rivals and soccer is the nation’s top sport by some distance (unlike Venezuela). Yet they’ve made the competition’s final four only twice (there have been 44 editions) and have never medaled. It’s a record of almost astonishing futility.
It’s been better in the 21st century. Ecuador qualified for the World Cup in 2002, 2006 and 2014 and in ’06, it was felled by a David Beckham goal in a round-of-16 loss to England. That momentum has helped forge a generation of players that's making its mark in several quality circuits around the world, especially the Premier League.
Ecuador currently is in second place, and only by goal differential, in CONMEBOL’s marathon World Cup qualifying competition at 4-1-1. It won in Buenos Aires, 2-0, in October and defeated Uruguay a month later. And it should have won Group B. If what looked like a good goal from Miller Bolaños stood in the Copa opener against Brazil, La Tri would have finished first and the U.S. would be playing Peru in Seattle. This is a good team, one that likely will be motivated by its history rather than cowed by it.
Ecuador should present a challenge similar to the one posed by Colombia in the Americans’ first game. La Tri boasts speed to spare and is lethal on the counterattack. The U.S. had difficulty breaking down a Colombian team that was comfortable ceding possession, and the Americans will have to avoid falling behind early in Seattle. Colombia’s early goal in Santa Clara changed the game.
While Colombia’s attack primarily came via James Rodríguez and Juan Cuadrado through the center and the channels, Ecuador is especially dangerous on the flanks—an area where the U.S. lacks heft. The shifty Jefferson Montero (Swansea City) was La Tri’s most effective player in the 1-0 exhibition loss to the Americans last month and Manchester United winger Antonio Valencia missed that game altogether.
The U.S. will be handicapped by the loss of right back DeAndre Yedlin, who’s suspended following his ejection from Saturday’s win over Paraguay. Klinsmann has several options to choose from when addressing Yedlin's absence, but all involve compromise.
Michael Orozco isn’t nearly as fast as Yedlin and when he starts for the U.S., it’s typically in the middle. Geoff Cameron can play on the right, but Klinsmann will be loathe to separate the Stoke City man from John Brooks after two straight stellar performances from the center-back duo. Fabian Johnson probably can keep up with Montero, but shifting from the left side would mean a second change to the established back four.
“There’s a reason why Jurgen picked the guys that the picked to bed on this team. We’re confident in whoever steps in,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan told U.S. Soccer. “We all are confident with each other in terms of training, in terms of playing with each other on the pitch. So whoever he picks to come into the starting 11, we know they’re going to do a great job and fill in for DeAndre, who obviously we’ll miss.”
Brooks and Cameron will have to keep their eyes on striker Enner Valencia, who’s fast, powerful and more productive for country than he is for club. He managed just five goals for West Ham United last season but has 16 in 28 appearances for Ecuador, including two in the Copa. Bolaños (Grêmio) typically runs off of Valencia, but he missed Sunday’s group-stage finale against Haiti after hurting his hamstring four days earlier.
If he can’t go against the U.S., Jaime Ayoví (Godoy Cruz), who scored Sunday, will fill in.
If the U.S. sticks with the 4-4-2 that worked well in the second half against Costa Rica and then versus Paraguay on Saturday—which may be wise considering Ecuador’s width—the center midfield duo of Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley also will be tested. Now that Bradley is focusing on shielding the back four, setting the tempo and establishing possession from a more withdrawn position, there finally seems to be real rhythm and understanding between the two. But on Thursday, both Jones and Bradley will have to watch for runners while working to deny service from Ecuador’s Christian Noboa (FC Rostov) and Carlos Gruezo (FC Dallas), who patrol the middle of the pitch. For the U.S., the link play provided by Alejandro Bedoya will be crucial.
Following the win over Paraguay, Klinsmann spoke as if he never imagined the Costa Rica upset that handed first place to the U.S. No one could, really. He mentioned the need to be “courageous” against five-time world champion Brazil and referenced New Jersey, the site of the quarterfinal he anticipated but now won’t play. Instead, he’ll get Ecuador, a team as eager to take the next step as his own. And it’s one that’s just as capable. That’s what makes Thursday’s match a fork in the road.
“This is a knockout game. Knockout games in big soccer tournaments like a World Cup, like a Copa América, are nerve-wracking games,” Klinsmann said. “It’s down to your belief. It’s down to your willingness to suffer, to go really through pain. This is what the players will go through on Thursday night.”
Guzan said they’re ready.
“We know it’s going to be hard,” he said. “But every game from here on out is going to be a difficult game, and we’re confident we’re playing with a good vibe right now.”