The US Men’s National Team take on Ecuador in a quarterfinal bout that will be their toughest challenge yet
Through a series of fortunate events, the USMNT was able to win Group A of Copa America. Strong defensive showings against Costa Rica and Paraguay carried the US through the first stage of the tournament, and a wild loss by Colombia to Costa Rica saw the Americans secure a trip to Seattle to take on Ecuador in the quarterfinals. Before the tournament’s commencement, manager Jurgen Klinsmann gave the US a target of reaching the semifinals. The US are now only one match away from that goal, but they’ll have to go through a side that is certainly not a walk in the park.
Ecuador play a traditional 4-4-2, with center midfielders Carlos Gruezo and Christian Noboa sitting back, and the speedy wings of Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero being offensively minded. There’s nothing particularly complex about La Tri’s tactics, rather it’s their simplicity that makes them dangerous. They’re strong in defense, muscling opponents off the ball while using height to head crosses away. Then, they’ll counter by outrunning you on the flanks, and dishing the ball quickly towards the net.
There’s no question that Premier League wingers Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero are the crux of Ecuador’s play. This will be a particular issue for the US fullbacks.
On the right side, DeAndre Yedlin will be missing the quarterfinal in his hometown, after receiving two yellows in less than two minutes during the Yanks’ match against Paraguay. Question is who will fill in for Yedlin. Michael Orozco was brought in after Yedlin’s sending off, but the US also have Edgar Castillo, yet to make an appearance in Copa America. Orozco will likely be the one tasked again to keep Swansea City’s Montero at bay.
On the other side, Fabian Johnson has had a mixed Copa America at left back. While he has shined when able to get forward and assist build-up play on the wing, he hasn’t done particularly well on defense. Johnson, who usually plays left midfield at his club Borussia Monchengladbach, is accustomed to having someone playing behind him. This showed against Paraguay in the first half, when Johnson rushed up from the back line to make a tackle, only to miss, and send the Paraguayans on a 3-on-1 counter attack (the counter was squashed by John Brooks). Johnson must put defense first in this match, otherwise he will get burned by the pacey Antonio Valencia.
One of the biggest problems the US faced against Paraguay was just how physical their opponents played. The constant pushes in the back and hard tackles from the South Americans were often reciprocated by the Yanks, leading to the US receiving six yellow cards, all coming in the second half. The US now face an Ecuadorian defense which is arguably more physical than Paraguay’s.
The center pairing of Arturo Mina and Gabriel Achilier are tall and commanding. They, along with the experienced outside duo of Juan Carlos Paredes and captain Walter Ayovi, were able to keep Brazil scoreless in their opening match. However, the now-eliminated Brazil mounted a pitiful Copa America campaign, and may not be the best metric. Ecuador’s defense looked much more vulnerable against Peru, when they gave up two goals in the first twelve minutes (you can watch those below). It’s tough to know which defense will show up for La Tri on Thursday night.
How the US will manage Ecuador
With the exception of the suspended DeAndre Yedlin, expect the US to trot out the same starting XI that they utilized through the group stage. The 4-4-2 played against Paraguay saw Gyasi Zardes fall back to midfield, and the team looked a bit more settled. This was reflected most up top, with the new attacking duo of Bobby Wood and Clint Dempsey making quick, incisive runs and getting into prime receiving positions for crosses into the box. That combination of pace and position proved a nightmare for Ecuador against Peru, and the US will do their best to replicate it.
A big question that remains is how the US midfield will factor into this match. Zardes, who will most likely line up on the right, will have to put in extra work in supporting Orozco or Castillo defensively behind him. Jefferson Montero and the rest of Ecuador will undoubtedly try and exploit the US’s right side. Michael Bradley will continue to play in the No. 6 role, acting as a shield for the center pairing of John Brooks and Geoff Cameron, as well as starting counter attacks from the back. That leaves Jermaine Jones and Alejandro Bedoya. Jones in particular has been a workhorse this tournament, providing a goal and disrupting opposing attacks on all sides of the pitch. With Zardes tracking back, look out for Jones and Bedoya working in tandem to feed balls to Wood and Dempsey up top.
For Brooks and Cameron in central defense, they gotta keep on keeping on. The duo have been excellent throughout the tournament, keeping two clean sheets in the last two matches. Technically, they should have no problem keeping the Ecuadorian front pair of Enner Valencia and Miller Bolanos at bay. However, they could become exposed when covering for their outside backs against the lightning fast Ecuadorian wingers.
The US can do it. Playing in the thunderous CenturyLink Field, they’ll have the best home field advantage available in the tournament. They have roadblocks in their way, not only in Ecuador, but also in the four yellow cards lingering for Michael Bradley, Bobby Wood, Michael Orozco, and Jermaine Jones. A yellow card for any of these players against Ecuador would mean a suspension for the semifinal should the US win. That semifinal would see the US take on either a strong Venezuela side, or an Argentinian squad led by world number one, Lionel Messi. But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
USA vs. Ecuador kicks off at 9:30 ET/6:30 PT. You can watch it on Fox Sports 1.