The United States men's national team won a rather significant game Thursday night in Seattle, earning a thrilling 2-1 win vs. Ecuador in the Quarterfinals of Copa America Centenario. Up next is a Semifinals matchup vs. the winner of Argentina-Venezuela. Here's what we learned:
Do not ever tread; don't even think about it
Once again, the kid from Nacogdoches, Texas was the man on the spot for the USMNT. For the third consecutive game in this tournament, Clint Dempsey scored a big goal to give the United States an early lead. This time it was a 22nd minute header into the upper corner, fed by a soft chip from Jermaine Jones after a great hold-up run from Bobby Wood. Dempsey made the initial pass in to Wood, got knocked down, and quietly trailed into the penalty area where Jones teed him up. Dempsey, as always, will find the space in the defense.
Dempsey's steady climb up the career USMNT scoring ladder continued, with his 52nd international goal pulling him within five of all-time leader Landon Donovan. With 12 goals in 16 U.S. matches during the past twelve months, Dempsey is as indispensable as ever. Donovan, by the way, couldn't have been more thrilled to call it from the broadcast booth, while acknowledging that the record is his "not for much longer."
Clint Dempsey hungers deeply for a major title, and that's more apparent than ever. His current form will have to continue for that hunger to be satisfied with a trophy lift next week.
Undisciplined play breeds a million armchair Klinsys
A looming concern heading into the Ecuador game was the threat of suspensions due to yellow card accumulation. No less than seven U.S. players carried yellows into Thursday night's game. Three of them, Jermaine Jones, Bobby Wood, and Alejandro Bedoya, failed to avoid going into the referee's book.
In Jones' case, it was a 52nd minute straight red card for his involvement in a dead ball altercation, though U.S. Soccer is considering an appeal. Perhaps more frustrating was the pair of unnecessary fouls committed by both Wood and Bedoya. Wood's came immediately on the restart following Jones' dismissal, and Bedoya's with a 73rd minute ill-advised challenge in his defensive corner while still ahead 2-0. Though with both sides down a man for most of the second half, the Americans found a way to hold on.
What comes next, however, is an extra large set of starting lineup decisions for Jurgen Klinsmann by Tuesday night. The good news is the return of the suspended DeAndre Yedlin, who presumably returns to his starting right back position. But replacing three players in the front six is a puzzle with many potential solutions. Graham Zusi, Kyle Beckerman, and Darlington Nagbe would appear to be the most probable candidates to step in. A start for young Christian Pulisic seems unlikely, but he figures to play a part, as should forward Chris Wondolowski. Could Perry Kitchen figure in the mix? The solid performance of Matt Besler at left back also presents the intriguing option of moving Fabian Johnson back to a wide midfield role, where he has excelled at the club level. Choices abound, and the Starting XI generators are being cranked into overdrive.
Enormous opportunity awaits
This is the game we wanted. Certainly Venezuela will have its say about that on Saturday night in Foxboro. Barring an upset of epic proportions, the United States will face Lionel Messi and Argentina on Tuesday night in Houston. This is the matchup that came ever so close to reality two years ago in Brazil, before the U.S. fell in extra time vs. Belgium. It would be a huge deal for U.S. Soccer, on multiple levels.
Of course there is the challenge on the field. The chance to face the top ranked team in the world, on your home soil, with a major championship on the line, is simply not something that comes by very often. The opportunities to face elite non-CONCACAF teams in meaningful games are very infrequent for the United States. It's a chance not only advance to a Final, but to make a statement on a global stage.
That leads to the other grand opportunity here. Lionel Messi, of course, would bring countless millions of eyeballs to this match. You don't need to be a hardcore soccer fan to know Messi. You don't even need to be a sports fan. People know Messi, they know he's the best, and a chance to see OUR team facing the best is something universally relateable. It's a showcase moment in a virtually exclusive prime time national television window. Win or lose, it's a massive stage presenting a chance to make a statement about the quality of American soccer, to win over new fans, and to inspire a generation of young players. Make no mistake; this is a really big deal.
Now is undoubtedly an exciting time for American soccer. But the potential for this game to serve as a launching point to an even greater future... that's even more exciting.