United States 2-1 Ecuador: True Grit

Okay, deep breath – that happened. In a frenetic dog fight, the US men’s national team defeated a plucky Ecuadorian side to advance to the Copa America Centenario’s Semi Final Round. A frenzy, a dog fight and a match marked by grit, tenacity, and flying expletives, the US men’s national team dug deep to grind out this victory.  

Dempsey scored a composed header in the 22nd minute courtesy of a slick Jermaine Jones pass.

Then a rumble and a tumble and a stumble for both teams. In the 52nd minute, Antonio Valencia received his second yellow for a late kick out on Alejandro Bedoya. In the cagey aftermath, Jermaine Jones received a straight red for making contact with an opponent’s head.

Bobby Wood and Alejandro Bedoya both received yellows which render them ineligible for the semis due to yellow card accumulation.

In the 65th minute, Gyasi Zardes tapped home the easiest goal of his career, as Dempsey worked hard in the box to pass over the goal line – which Zardes then buried into the net.

With both teams down to ten men, the game became much more open. The extra space benefitted Ecuador, whose speedsters ran ramped on the wings. The US had luck on their side – Enner Valenica, normally potent in the air, failed to create any time of aerial havoc. He missed multiple open headers, and instead of the ball bulging at the back of the head, the US, more than once, breathed deeply as the ball skidded wide of the posts.

A clever free kick put Ecuador back in the game. In the closing twenty minutes, Ecuador attacked and attacked, but the US held fast with some fierce defending. John Brooks is making a case for Copa America Centenario player of the tournament. He led the back line as the “Berlin Wall” and the whole US team remained disciplined and left as victors.

Here are some thoughts:

Wood Will be the Hardest to Replace

It seemed that all offensive creativity began with Bobby Wood. He found space in between the center-backs, ran in behind the defense and either took defenders on to a force a corner, or held up the ball nicely in wait for fellow attackers to join the fray. Both goals started with Wood’s intelligent movement and aggressive hold up play. The US lacks a target striker like Wood. We know Dempsey needs someone up top with him in order to maximize the veteran’s strengths. Wood has been dangerous all tournament long and without Jozy Altidore, it will be difficult to replace the blossoming US attacker.

Michael Bradley Needs to Improve

Bradley is the USMNT’s engine – the player who works harder than anyone else on the field, commands players forward, remains disciplined and aggressive – or at least he should be. Bradley had another poor game where passes were too loose, possession too relaxed, and too many turnovers. Furthermore, as seen throughout the tournament, Bradley’s set pieces very rarely create results, or even chaos in the box. They are usually hit too hard or hang in the air too long.

Argentina will capitalize on these imperfections and the US errors will turn into Argentine chances. With a plethora of central and attacking midfielders who will close down fast, suffocate gaps, and release wingers quickly, Bradley needs to emerge Tuesday night as a dominant leader who inspires fear when on the ball. He needs to string the attack together, work well in transition, and crunch down.

Take the Game to Argentina

The US has nothing to lose. Really, they have nothing to lose. They have made the semi-finals of a prestigious tournament with some of the best teams across the globe, and around the corner they are about to face the world’s best player, and debatably best team. If the US don’t advance and lose to Argentina, no one can fault them. So they might as well go after them. This means showing the attacking, attractive soccer that we have seen glimpses of throughout the tournament.

Don’t bunker down and send in ‘reliable’ veterans. Looking at you Chris Wondolowski and Kyle Beckerman. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Beckerman in the starting line up as a replacement for Jones. He brings experience, composure, and is a pure number 6 defensive midfielder. However, the US should not shore up the defense but rather play free flowing soccer. Put in Pulisic for Wood and Nagbe for Jones since they are two young, excited, attack-minded players who can find an opening and create excitement – even if it sacrifices a little defensively. From the top on down, US soccer needs this moment to be aggressive, not sensible, not pragmatic, and not defensive.

If the USMNT can beat Argentina and head to the Copa America final, it will be one of the greatest US men’s soccer achievements ever.