There are a couple of potential downsides to finishing first.
Instead of a short trip up I-95 to the Meadowlands, the U.S. national team must fly across the country, from Philadelphia to Seattle, to play its Copa América Centenario quarterfinal. And the Americans will take the field Thursday instead of Friday, which means one fewer day of rest for a team that started the same 11 in each of its three group-stage games.
But there’s one upside. The U.S. (2-1-0), which finished first in Group A thanks to Saturday’s 1-0 win over Paraguay and Costa Rica’s ensuing upset of Colombia, will meet Ecuador (1-0-2) in the Copa quarters at CenturyLink Field.
Ecuador is a solid team—it’s tied for the lead early CONMEBOL’s World Cup qualifying competition and is ranked 13th by FIFA—but it hasn't had its way with the U.S. in recent years and has next to no knockout-round pedigree of its own. Ecuador cemented second place in Group B with Sunday’s easy 4-0 win over Haiti. The Americans’ real reward for finishing first is a quarterfinal it can expect to win.
Here are three thoughts on the matchup:
The U.S. and Ecuador played each other on May 25 in a friendly outside Dallas, where Darlington Nagbe secured a 1-0 win with a 90th-minute half volley. Although Ecuador holds the lead in the all-time series between the countries at 5-2-5, the U.S. is 3-1-2 since 2000. The only loss came back in the fall of 2011, shortly after coach Jurgen Klinsmann took over.
Last month, the manager still was searching for the right Copa combination. He started a three-man midfield featuring Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman, while center back Steve Birnbaum slotted in alongside John Brooks and Graham Zusi was at right forward.
The game was on lockdown through the first half, but it opened up considerably after Nagbe and Bobby Wood came in at halftime. Bradley withdrew to anchor the midfield in front of the back four—he’s been there ever since—and Wood added the right amount of speed and smarts to the front line. The finish was exciting, but the Ecuador friendly was pivotal in guiding Klinsmann toward a couple of tactical decisions that would serve him well in the Copa.
Ecuador wasn’t at full strength either—Manchester United winger Antonio Valencia and Monterrey defender Walter Ayoví were the most notable absentees—but many of the players who’ve featured for La Tricolor this month were at FC Dallas’s Toyota Stadium.
How to replace Yedlin?
Several U.S. players have expressed their appreciation for the consistency in Klinsmann’s lineup decisions. A team in perpetual flux has become a team with obvious chemistry. That was evident Saturday in Philadelphia, especially after DeAndre Yedlin’s second-half red card.
That red card, however, means Klinsmann will have to make a change, and it’s a change that could have a significant impact on Thursday’s game.
During last month’s friendly, Yedlin had his hands full with Swansea City winger Jefferson Montero, who was quick, creative and the primary catalyst of Ecuador’s attack. Finding a replacement for Yedlin who can deal with Montero will be critical.
Klinsmann seems to have two options. The first is to switch Fabian Johnson from left back to right back, which he played at the 2014 World Cup. Edgar Castillo would then fill in on the left. That means two changes to the back four instead of one, but Johnson may be the U.S. player best equipped to stop Montero. The other possibility is the one employed Saturday following Yedlin’s ejection. Klinsmann inserted Michael Orozco on the right and left Johnson where he was. Doing that won’t disrupt the chemistry being established on the U.S. left, but it will expose the right because of Orozco’s relative lack of pace. It's almost impossible to imagine Klinsmann breaking up the successful center back pairing of Brooks and Geoff Cameron.
Klinsmann has three days to find the answer.
The U.S. played its first official international 100 years ago. Since then, it’s won only two knockout matches against non-CONCACAF teams, not counting consolation games. That’s right, two. It beat Brazil at the 1998 Gold Cup and Spain at the 2009 Confederations Cup. There have been a dozen losses. There may be no statistic that’s a better indicator of where the U.S. sits, traditionally and historically, in soccer’s pecking order.
After a century, the U.S. has become a team that can get through a group. But it hasn’t taken the next step. Klinsmann desperately wants to be the one to do it, and he’s been saying recently that he’s targeting the 2018 World Cup semis. To get there, he’s going to have to beat a non-CONCACAF team or two.
Thursday represents the chance to do that for just the third time in program history.
Ecuador will be hungry as well. As one of only two CONMEBOL nations that hasn’t won a Copa América, La Tricolor will be eager to raise their level as well. The reward for the winner likely will be a semifinal showdown with Argentina, and another chance to make history.