DAVID SMITH - Thursday, June 16, 2016
After fighting the odds to emerge atop Group A, the United States is tasked with facing a familiar foe on Thursday evening when they put it all on the line against Ecuador.
Few would have expected such a remarkable turn of events following the highly panned opening performance against Colombia not even two weeks ago. The uninspiring 2-0 loss to the now eliminated team set a dour mood amidst fans and media alike, confirming many suspicions that the team was in trouble, not only for this tournament, but also for the ongoing qualification trials for the 2018 World Cup.
Fast forward what has now seemed a lifetime, and the team has scored a pair of distinct victories in their final two games of group play. An offensive explosion against a surprisingly docile Costa Rica squad was followed by a cheek-clinching 1-0 grind-out win over Paraguay, nearly half of which was played with only 10 men on the field.
The seeming jump between team identities is even more remarkable considering that head coach Jürgen Klinsmann has trotted out the exact same 11 players in each of the three games.
Whether the overall upward trend of this collective multiple personality complex is due to minor tactical adjustments by the coach, a sudden clicking of the parts or some other unknown cosmic anomaly will likely remain a mystery frozen in time, since Klinsmann will be forced to make what could be a critical adjustment for Thursday's game.
The absence of jet-powered right back DeAndre Yedlin, who has, apart from his two minutes of madness, quietly been one of the better performers for the team across all three games, puts Klinsmann in a minor tactical bind.
With left-side specialist Edgar Castillo being the lone preferred outside back on the roster and Fabian Johnson having great amount of tactical flexibility, one logical option would be to shift the Borussia Mönchengladbach standout to the right and have Castillo take on his natural position.
This, however, would disrupt what has been a clearly noticeable chemistry between Johnson and left-sided central defender John Brooks - who has perhaps emerged as the player of the tournament for the US - and endanger the balance of the defensive unit.
Alternatively, should Klinsmann continue to trust the same starting unit and try to replace the single missing cog as best he can, this will almost certainly force some player - whether it be Castillo, a natural wing player like Graham Zusi or a typically central defender Michael Orozco - to play out of position on the right side of defense.
As a third less orthodox option, the former World Cup winner could opt to roll the dice and make a complete tactical overhaul for the first time in the tournament.
Considering that each and every of the 11 starters (apart from Yedlin) and 6 substitute players who took part in the 1-0 warm-up victory by the Unites States over Ecuador prior to the tournament will be in uniform on Thursday night, the final choice could be favored, if only to claim an initial element of surprise over their opponents.
Ecuador will have their full squad to choose from, and will be boosted by the return of Gabriel Achilier after the central defender sat out their 4-0 thrashing of Haiti due to picking up a pair of yellows in their previous contest.
La Tricolor had a similarly nervous finish to the group stage, needing a victory in their final game, along with a bit of help from the other Group A matchup between Peru and Brazil, to reach the knockout round for the first time in recent memory.
Historically, Ecuador is one of the least successful South American teams in the Copa América tournament, being one of two - alongside Venezuela - to have never won the competition. They have, in fact, never even played in the final, with their last trip past the group stage occurring nearly 20 years ago in 1997.
Despite history working against them, the team has a formidable front line that in their current form will be the strongest test thus far for whatever back line Klinsmann rolls out. The two Valencias - Enner and Antonio - along with Jefferson Montero and Jaime Ayoví have accounted for four goals in the last two games, with the same quartet responsible for setting up five of the team's six overall goals in their previous two games.
Surely, the deciding factor of the game will be whether the USA's back-four and the likely double-six pairing of Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones can contain this medusa-like threat.
It should be noted that, in contrary to the usual procedure for knock-out games, a drawn result at the end of 90 minutes will send the game directly to a penalty shoot-out. This would not seem to favor either team; US keeper Brad Guzan was in the nets for the team's embarrassing shoot-out loss to Panama in the consolation third-place game of last summer's Gold Cup embarrassment but did dominate a shoot-out victory for Aston Villa in the 2009 English League Cup. Ecuador starter Alexander Domínguez has a lone shoot-out to his name, a victory in a Copa Sudamericana quarterfinal in 2011.
The game kicks off at 6:30pm local time on Thursday at CenturyLink Field in Seattle.