SEATTLE — So now we know.
We know it’s possible for the U.S. men’s national team to combine the identity that defined its past (courage, spirit, athleticism) with the identity it wants to have in the future (playing good, technical soccer). For much of the last two years it was hard to see an identity on this U.S. team as it lurched from a post-World Cup hangover into a full-fledged malaise.
But on Thursday, in the U.S.’s 2–1 victory over Ecuador in the Copa América quarterfinals, we witnessed a team that has revealed over the last three wins a blueprint for What Comes Next in the history of the USMNT. It is in fact possible to retain your best traditional qualities while taking the next mandatory steps as a soccer nation.
Progress isn’t a zero-sum game.
The U.S. will face Argentina or Venezuela in the Copa América semifinals on Tuesday in Houston, and if the Americans are to take one more step and reach the final, they will have to summon what they did on Thursday in a first half that was marked by some truly good soccer and a second half that was defined by that famous U.S. grit and resilience.
There were moments in the first half against Ecuador when the U.S. played some of the best soccer it has shown against any good opponent in coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s five-year tenure. Intricate passing, smart runs, intuition: The ingredients were all there, except for the final pass or finish. Clint Dempsey’s well-taken goal put the U.S. up 1–0 at halftime, but the lead could have easily been bigger.
Then in the second half, as the game descended into chaos and two red cards were shown (to Jermaine Jones and Ecuador’s Antonio Valencia), the old U.S. fight-or-flight instinct kicked in.
We saw a come-at-me-bro courage from the Americans, one that had disappeared at times over the past two years, and that team-wide commitment paid off as the U.S. held on desperately to triumph.
Did it come at a cost? You’d better believe it. Three U.S. players will be suspended for the semifinals: Jones (on a straight red card that Klinsmann called “an absolute joke” and “a disgrace”), Bobby Wood (for yellow-card accumulation) and Alejandro Bedoya (for yellow-card accumulation), who could be the hardest one to replace given his indispensable yeoman’s work during this tournament.
But the overall lesson from this game was a positive one: The U.S. identity may finally be evolving the way Klinsmann promised from the start in 2011.
“I thought in the first half we played very well in moments,” said captain Michael Bradley. “If we were a little bit sharper, a little bit better when it came time for the final shot, the final cross, maybe we can be up more than just 1–0.”
“In the second half, the game becomes chaotic, it gets turned on its head a little bit as a lot of these games do,” Bradley continued. “Anybody who has watched any of these games in this tournament, it’s not surprising. Then when there’s a few red cards and when Ecuador gets back to 2–1, you know at that point it’s going to be a frantic finish. And style points go out the window. And it’s about the willingness from every guy to do whatever it takes.”
No U.S. player combined the good soccer/junkyard dog role better than Dempsey, who was involved in several of the U.S.'s most attractive passing sequences (to say nothing of his goal) but also showed the desire and grit that allowed him to beat his Ecuadoran foes to the ball in the box, which turned into the game-winning assist to Gyasi Zardes.
In the first half, Dempsey said, “I thought we played well, created some good chances. We had some good looks in front of goal. Unlucky not to score more. At the same time, we kept fighting in the second half. It wasn’t as pretty. We didn’t keep possession as well. It’s always nail-biting when you can see the goal, and they had some good chances to equalize.”
At 33, Dempsey has become a national soccer treasure. There is something classically American about him, an East Texas kid with no soccer pedigree who refused to accept that he had no business playing on the world stage.
Dempsey broke barriers with his will and his skill, and now he’s shattering the idea that his national team career was coming to an end.
With three goals in the Copa América, Dempsey is tied for the Golden Boot lead with Lionel Messi and Philippe Coutinho. And his 52 international goals are now only five behind Landon’s Donovan’s U.S. record.
“Clint is special, and he showed that tonight,” said Klinsmann on Thursday. “He showed it the last few weeks. He showed it his entire career … The performance from him tonight was unbelievable.”
As goalkeeper Brad Guzan said of Dempsey, “He’s been doing it for so long that it’s almost come to be expected a little bit. If he gets half a chance, more times than not he’s going to put it on frame, and if he gets a clear chance, more often than not he’s going to score. He’s a big-time player for us.”
It seems appropriate that Dempsey would be part of this Copa América semifinal run, part of this promising identity that the U.S. team is finally adopting. Skill and fight, guile and grit: Dempsey has all those qualities. Increasingly his teammates do, too.
“They made a huge step forward tonight,” Klinsmann said. “They absolutely deserved to win.”
Now the semifinals await.