Jurgen Klinsmann may have avoided the disaster of bowing out at the group stage of the Copa America Centenario on home soil, but one hurdle still remains if he is to achieve his stated goal of guiding the United States to the semifinals. After delivering victories in effective knockout games against Costa Rica against Paraguay, the U.S. now faces a quarterfinal against Ecuador in Seattle on Thursday.
Given that there were suggestions that failure to make it out of the group could cost Klinsmann his job, there would be a temptation to think that the pressure was now off. But was the U.S. to bow out against a country appearing in its first Copa America quarterfinal since 1997, the disappointment would still be profound.
The good news is that both Klinsmann and his team can take plenty of encouragement from the last two performances into Thursday’s encounter at CenturyLink Field. Naming the same lineup for three games in a row for the first time in his near five-year tenure, Klinsmann has got the benefit of some big displays from his core group of veterans, namely Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones.
The rewards of fielding a settled backline, after the debacle of the experimental approach at last year’s Gold Cup, have also been substantial. John Brooks appears to have matured into a central defender who could be a fixture in the side for the next 10 years, while alongside him Geoff Cameron has brought steady experience.
Given those displays, it will be a significant blow that Klinsmann will have to make an alteration to his defense against Ecuador. DeAndre Yedlin’s foolish sending off against Paraguay, for two yellow cards for two rash challenges a matter of seconds apart, means Klinsmann has to ponder a replacement.
Michael Orozco would appear the likeliest deputy, having come on as a substitute after Yedlin’s departure on Saturday. Other options would involve altering more than one position, with the possibility of moving Fabian Johnson from left to right-back and bringing in either Matt Besler or Fabian Castillo on the left.
Just as important, though, could be how Klinsmann sets up the team further forward. The former Germany and Bayern Munich coach switched from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 midway through the second game against Costa Rica. On the face of it, the results have been good. Certainly Dempsey and striker Bobby Wood, who was previously pushed over to the left, are more comfortable in the setup.
Yet the balance between Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones in the center of midfield remains in question mark. Paraguay was able to exploit that to create opportunities both against 11 and 10 men. And it is surely something that Ecuador will have been looking at after securing its place in the quarterfinals on Sunday.
After draws against Brazil and Peru, Ecuador went into its final game against Haiti knowing that a convincing win would guarantee progress. That was secured with the minimum of fuss thanks to first-half goals form Enner Valencia and Jaime Ayovi before second-half efforts from Christian Noboa and Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia sealed an emphatic 4-0 victory.
Speaking after the game, coach Gustavo Quinteros described progress to a first quarterfinal in 19 years as a “historic” moment. It certainly was, given that Ecuador has not made it beyond the group stage for the last six Copa Americas and two of its three World Cup appearances.
For a country that has improved markedly in the past 15 years and now has players operating a high level in Europe, including four members of the current squad in the English Premier League, results in major tournaments constitute a significant disappointment. But, having made the initial breakthrough, there is plenty of reason for Ecuador to aim for even more in the shape of a first victory in a knockout match since the 1993 Copa America and a first ever in one outside of its home country.
It may never have had a better chance. Having finished second in Group B, Ecuador will have expected to face World Cup quarterfinalists Colombia in the last eight. And, while Quinteros said that he thought Colombia and the U.S. were “equally strong” opponents, he cannot be too disheartened at taking on the U.S., even if it is the host nation.
Certainly, Ecuador should know what to expect from Klinsmann’s men. The two sides have faced off twice since the last World Cup, the first a 1-1 draw in a match that acted as a farewell for Landon Donovan and the second just last month when the U.S. triumphed 1-0. That most recent encounter, though, came with Ecuador missing Antonio Valencia and captain Walter Ayovi.
The major doubt over Ecuador’s team selection this time around concerns the fitness of forward Miller Bolaños. The Gremio man scored in a 2-2 draw with Peru but then picked up a muscle strain that ruled him out of the win over Haiti. In that match, Quinteros opted to go for an orthodox two-man front line, with Jaime Ayovi partnering Enner Valencia. Yet the coach changed it midway through, bringing on attacking midfielder Juan Cazares in a quest for greater solidity, and suggested afterward he is likely to start with that system if Bolaños does not win his fitness battle.
Prediction: The U.S. has impressed in doing what was needed to get two vital wins. Still, it has shown signs of imbalance that are likely to be exploited against higher caliber of opposition. With the excellent midfielder Noboa and pace and trickery out wide of Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero, it Enner Valencia can take his chances up front then Ecuador could well be the team moving on.
Predicted Score: Ecuador 2-1 USA