One of the top soccer venues in the country is about to stage one of the biggest games the national team has played under head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
The Americans, who lost to Colombia in the Copa America Centenario opener June 3, kick off the quarterfinals against Ecuador at CenturyLink Field in Seattle on Thursday. The winner faces the survivor of an Argentina-Venezuela match in the semifinals.
Here are three storylines to follow in the first of four quarterfinals to be played during the next three days:
SEMIFINALS OR BUST. Klinsmann, who originally stated getting out of the group phase would represent success, upgraded his benchmark objective a few days before the tournament by setting the semifinals as his goal.
Fate apparently handed the U.S. an easier quarterfinal than had been expected when after it beat Paraguay, 1-0, despite playing most of second half with 10 men, Costa Rica’s upset of Colombia (3-2) lifted it into the top spot in Group A. A day later, Peru exploited numerous squandered chances by beating Brazil, 1-0, with a goal scored with the aid of a blatant handball the officials somehow missed.
Had Brazil gained at least a tie and finished first in Group B, still the Americans would have avoided it in the quarters by its own first-place finish. A 4-0 rout of Costa Rica and gritty 1-0 defeat of Paraguay has done wonders for a team that looked disjointed and overmatched for much of its opener against Colombia.
Of the eight teams remaining in the competition, the USA looks like one of several squads that are a notch or two behind Argentina and Mexico, both of which won their groups. Those teams are on opposite sides of the bracket; on the U.S. side is Argentina, which plays Venezuela in its quarterfinal.
Losing to Argentina in a semi would be no disgrace and fulfill Klinsmann’s stated objective. Yet backed by a large, rowdy crowd in Seattle, the Americans will be expected to prevail against a solid and dangerous South American opponent.
Klinsmann’s task is complicated by the suspension of right back DeAndre Yedlin, whose blazing speed is a significant asset at both ends of the field. The default replacement is Michael Orozco, who took up the task in the Paraguay game and would be the simplest option -- but not the only one -- to face Ecuador.
RATING ECUADOR. Not quite as good as Colombia but better than Paraguay is where Ecuador, which is tied with Uruguay atop the Conmebol World Cup qualifying standings, stacks up in this tournament.
Ecuador’s only Centenario victory is a 4-0 defeat of Haiti, yet it frustrated Brazil in its opener (0-0) and rallied to tie Peru, 2-2, with goals by Enner Valencia and Miller Bolanos (who is injured and will miss Thursday's game) on either side of halftime. They have been one-half of a potent quartet that also includes Jefferson Montero, who had shared with Bolanos the playmaking while stationed wide left, and Antonio Valencia (no relation), a rugged customer whether he goes for the byline or arrows towards the near post. Both Valencias play in the Premier League – Enner for West Ham, Antonio for Manchester United – and thus aren’t prone to be fazed by large, hostile crowds.
Both teams regard the other as beatable, yet the key for Ecuador may be how they handle the noise and conditions (temporary grass surface) at CenturyLink Field. They survived a few scary moments against Brazil in the Rose Bowl but didn’t cope well with early Peruvian pressure before getting a foothold on the match and battling back.
After conceding two goals to Colombia in the first half, the U.S. has blanked opponents for 228 consecutive minutes. Only on a few occasions have the Americans needed keeper Brad Guzan to rectify defensive mistakes and in a match very close to being a tossup one critical moment -- a great play or a terrible mistake -- could determine the outcome.
FLASHBACK TO A FRIENDLY. A Darlington Nagbe goal in the 90th minute earned the USA a 1-0 victory over Ecuador in a friendly watched by less than 10,000 fans at FC Dallas Stadium May 25.
Aside from being a friendly, the match didn’t present the U.S. with all that much scouting data. Antonio Valencia sat out the match, as did left back Walter Ayovi, who has been a national team mainstay for a decade yet at 30 is in the prime of his career. He is the primary conduit linking the back line to the attackers, especially Montero.
(His cousin Jaime Ayovi is also in the squad, and scored a goal against Haiti.)
FC Dallas midfielder Carlos Gruezo does a lot of the destroying. The other central mid, Christian Noboa, likes to spray early balls as soon as possible after a turnover. While the back line isn’t particularly strong -- Nagbe scored his first international goal after a ballooned clearance by Juan Carlos Paredes was knocked back into the middle by Bobby Wood –- it can be tough to crack if sufficient screening is provided.
Nagbe and Christian Pulisic came on as subs in the Centenario opener against Colombia; since then, Graham Zusi -- who scored the fourth goal against Costa Rica -- has taken on the role of attacking catalyst off the bench. Klinsmann used the same 11 starters for all three group games and need only replace Yedlin. A few of the backups might be a bit stale from lack of game action; four field players have yet to play in the Centenario.