Jürgen Klinsmann called for courage and his players gloriously delivered.
A stellar display from Clint Dempsey in his own Seattle backyard helped Klinsmann earn his first major tournament knock-out triumph: the 2-1 victory over Ecuador on Thursday night sends the US to within one game of the Copa América Centenario final.
They will play either Argentina or Venezuela in Houston on Tuesday and, on this evidence, will give either a serious run for their money.
Dempsey’s 52nd international strike – his third goal of the tournament – early in the first-half settled home nerves before the evergreen 33-year-old crossed for Gyasi Zardes to roll in the killer second on 65 minutes.
The LA Galaxy forward’s goal was crucial in ensuring a match which threatened to boil over was kept just out of Ecuador’s reach as heads began to get lost in a red mist. Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia and Jermaine Jones were both sent-off in an unseemly, crazy incident five minutes after half-time which ratcheted up the intensity levels at a raucous CenturyLink Field.
Valencia’s sly kick on Alejandro Bedoya saw Jones react by landing a punch, albeit a weak one, on the winger’s chin. It sparked mayhem and, on reflection, neither player will be rushing to watch a DVD of the incident.
Ecuador, for the most part, were disappointing and really only came alive once the terrier-like Michael Arroyo had pulled one back on 74 minutes. All of a sudden, the US looked fallible and were ultimately thankful for the wastefulness of West Ham’s Enner Valencia who spurned two gilt-edged chances.
The emotion was laid bare on Klinsmann’s face at the nerve-shredding denouement, the normally placid German becoming involved in a slanging match with Ecuador players who were beginning to lose their heads as the clock ticked towards 90 minutes.
Yet the evening ultimately belonged to the US who were bold in attack and resolute for long periods at the back. Klinsmann demanded they push forward and show no fear in what was a true test of their talents - and so it proved.
If American soccer is to make the strides so many believe need to happen then nights, and battling displays like this, will need to be replicated with increasing regularity. With DeAndre Yedlin suspended following his red card against Paraguay, Klinsmann was forced into his first starting line-up change for this tournament. Incredibly, his consistent selection was the first time in 86 years that a US coach had stuck with the same players for three matches in succession. Matt Besler, of Sporting Kansas City, was brought in despite Klinsmann hinting pre-match that veteran Michael Orozco would start.
The surprise shedding of his Tinkerman persona however proved the German owned a wholehearted belief in plans to lead his side deep into the Copa and beyond. As he skipped and high-fived his way to the dug-out before kick-off it showed, in Seattle anyhow, support for him remained.
It should continue nationwide after this.
“They are understanding what the next level is all about,” Klinsmann said. “The team performance was outstanding. I really hope the country gets behind us for the semi-final. The support we have received has been fantastic. This is big time.”
Much relied on Dempsey performing on home turf. The Sounders forward lies second in the all-time goalscorers record behind Landon Donovan following his opener here. His experience of the last major tournament run in Brazil, along with captain Michael Bradley and Jones, has stood the US in fine stead over the past two weeks allowing younger guns such as Bobby Wood and Zardes to make stern claims for the future.
The opening stages were cagey. Both sides were standing off, waiting to see who’d show their hand first. Geoff Cameron headed wide on 15 minutes before Wood was unable to get enough traction on the ball to send it past Ecuador goalkeeper Maximo Banguera – the first openings of a match which had failed to ignite from the very start.
Cameron has formed a rock-like partnership with John Brooks yet an uncharacteristic error on 17 minutes almost proved costly. Luckily for him and the US, his botched clearance was fired over by Arroyo from eight yards.
But two minutes later, Dempsey made Ecuador pay thanks to an all-round excellent team effort. Wood carved an opening on the right hand side, and pulled the ball back for Jones whose pinpoint cross was emphatically headed in by Dempsey.
“Clint is special and he showed that tonight and he’s done that throughout his career,” Dempsey said. “This performance was unbelievable and in front of his home crowd – he deserves everything.”
Cue celebrations in the stands and on the touchline. It was imperative for Klinsmann that his men really took the game to Ecuador. Go for the throat, foot on the throttle kind of stuff. Wood and Dempsey were causing a multitude of problems and it was almost two for the US on 25 minutes, a close-range effort was well kept out by the increasingly busy Banguera.
The game was opening up. Brooks was on hand to produce a superb block from Arroyo as the Ecuadorians looked to quickly make amends. The more clear cut openings however continued to fall for the US. And if Bedoya had shown a far more decisive streak just before half-time before Arroyo broke clear only to be thwarted by Guzan’s legs, Klinsmann’s pep talk at the break would have sounded tremendously different. That said, the German would have been rightly delighted with what transpired over the first 45 minutes. The US looked dangerous in attack while rock solid in defence. The game was under their control.
Five minutes after the restart however, all hell broke loose. Valencia’s frustrations at an inability to make inroads into the American backline boiled over and a wild kick out at Bedoya saw the Colombian referee hand the Manchester United winger his second yellow. What followed was needless and unnecessary. Jones inexplicably thrust a clenched fist at Valencia and received a straight red, a sequence Klinsmann later classified “an absolute joke, a disgrace”. It wasn’t a connection Mike Tyson would have been proud of – yet it connection all the same. Within seconds of US fans thinking a one man advantage would ease their path to the last four, it was suddenly 10 v 10 and all to play for. Words cannot describe the stupidness of Jones’ actions.
The chaos had now given this encounter a helter-skelter feeling. Best laid plans were being ripped up and rearranged. Yet soon enough the Ecuadorians were on their knees and heading home.
Dempsey was involved yet again, winning the ball and crossing for Zardes who gleefully tapped in. Arroyo made it interesting and if Valencia was more clinical, the game could well have gone to penalties. As it was the man known as ‘Deuce’ had delivered a couple of unforgettable aces.
Where would the US - and Klinsmann - be without him?
This article was written by Steve Brenner at CenturyLink Field, Seattle, for theguardian.com on Friday 17th June 2016 04.52 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010