EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ — Of the many complex permutations surrounding the final round of fixtures in Group B, Ecuador had one simple certainty: beat Haiti by at least two goals and it would be heading into the quarterfinals of the Copa America for the first time in 19 years. Within 20 minutes it already had that goal in the bag and went onto to cruise to a 4-0 victory to set up a meeting with host nation the United States in the last eight in Seattle on Thursday.
Coach Gustavo Quinteros afterward described it as a “historic” moment that filled he, his players, and he expected the whole nation with pride. And it could have been an even better day. A win by seven goals could have left Ecuador in with a chance to top the group, if Brazil and Peru had tied the other final fixture in Group B later on Thursday.
Yet, it would be questionable whether that honor would have carried a reward at all. A surprising final round of fixtures in Group A meant the United States topping the section, rather than one of the tips for the title, Colombia. Quinteros, though, claimed it didn’t matter t which side his team come up against in the quarterfinals.
“First place would have been something great for Ecuador, he said in his post-match press conference. “We’re going to be facing the US now, had we been facing Colombia I think that they would have been equally strong. They're both dangerous teams, we know them well. the rival that we have is really going to leave it in our hands above all.”
The U.S. came out on top 1-0 when the two sides met in Dallas just last month, yet Ecuador certainly provided enough to give the U.S. pause for thought at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, on Sunday. Ecuador’s porous run in South America’s championship has been difficult to fathom, given that in the time since its last appearance in the Copa America knockout phase it has made it to the World Cup on three occasions. But the current team was certainly in no mood to allow the drought to stretch into the centenary edition of the championship.
Against the tournament outsiders, who came into the match already eliminated from contention on the back of two defeats, Ecuador began the match as if it were taking nothing for granted. Within the first 10 minutes, Quinteros’ men had created four chances to score. It was only a matter of time before Haiti’s admirable but ultimately suicidal high defensive line was exposed on the scoresheet.
That arrived in the 11th minute when Enner Valencia broke in behind down the left, cut in on his right foot and supplied a clinical finish into the far corner of the net. The West Ham striker was a thorn in Haiti’s side throughout with his constant running and harrying of the backline. Certainly he should prove more of a nuisance for the U.S. defense than anything Paraguay offered up in a 1-0 win for Jurgen Klinsmann’s men that clinched their spot in the quarterfinals.
In the 20th minute, Valencia was to the fore once again to help double Ecuador’s lead. Surging behind the Haiti backline, he this time unselfishly squared the ball for Jaime Ayovi to finish into an unguarded net. With Swansea City’s Jefferson Montero rampaging down the left and Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia, who missed last week’s friendly, offering pace and quality down the right, Ecuador suggested it has the attacking quality to cause real problems to a U.S. side that was occasionally vulnerable in transition against Paraguay.
“If Ecuador plays up to 100 percent of its potential it will surely have more chances to continue qualifying against a complicated rival such as the United States, playing at home,” Quinteros said. And surely they feel the same as us, that their goal is to continue in the competition.”
Yet, Quinteros was far from completely satisfied, and understandably so. Even against an opponent that lost 7-1 to Brazil last time out, Ecuador allowed several openings on its goal and relied on more than one point-blank save from goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez. The crossbar also came to Ecuador’s rescue to deny Jerome Mechack.
“We have to be more patient about how we manage the ball,” Quinteros stated.
Quinteros’ words afterward suggested it was unlikely he will again start with two out-and-out strikers as he did on Sunday. If Miler Bolaños is not back from injury then Juan Cazares, who came in at halftime to sit behind Enner Valencia, could get the start.
The player who may be key to Ecuador’s hopes of ousting the U.S. though, is Christian Noboa. The midfielder was at the heart of most of what Ecuador did well against Haiti, a reliable presence in front of the back four, classy in possession and, as he showed 12 minutes into the second half, capable of getting forward to support the attack. From Montero’s cross, the man who plays in Russia with Rostov calmly chested the ball down and finished sweetly into the bottom corner.
With 12 minutes remaining, the rout was complete. Enner Valencia registered his second assist, allowing his namesake Antonio to walk the ball into the net. The U.S. may have initially been relieved at not facing Brazil in the quarterfinals, but Ecuador showed there will is plenty of work ahead if Klinsmann is to achieve his goal of a semifinal berth at the Copa America Centenario.