Jurgen Klinsmann finally made a change for the first time in this tournament with Matt Besler coming in for the suspended DeAndre Yedlin in the starting lineup. He also shuffled around some of the players in the team in the process with Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley switching sides, as did Gyasi Zardes and Alejandro Bedoya, while Fabian Johnson moved to right-back to allow Besler to play at left-back. The team once again lined up in a 4-4-2 formation, although they did shift to a 4-3-3 at several points during the game.
Gustavo Quintero made one change himself to his Ecuadorian team with Michael Arroyo coming in for Jaime Ayovi to make his tournament. The Bolivian-born manager also once again deployed an asymmetrical 4-2-3-1 formation with Arroyo playing behind Enner Valencia. Much like the U.S., with Arroyo in the lineup, Ecuador were also able to shift to a 4-3-3 formation with him dropping deeper into the midfield but more often than not he joined the attacks further up the pitch almost as a second striker making it a 4-2-4 at times, with wingers Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero playing as advanced wingers.
U.S.' Focus on Flank Defending a Success
Ecuador's strengths are on the flanks with a large majority of their attacks coming through Valencia and Montero who have pace, power, and dribbling abilities and aren't afraid to take defenders on in 1v1 situations out wide. Due to their lack of creativity in midfield, they emphasize and base their offensive plays through playing vertically and directly by quickly trying to switch the ball to the wings to either one of the wingers, or the fullbacks Walter Ayovi and Juan Carlos Paredes who often play almost as wing backs when Ecuador is on the ball.
All of this meant that it was obvious that the U.S.' best hope of shutting down the Ecuadorians and dealing with their offense is by focusing their defense to defend the flanks and double or even triple up on the players out wide when they're in possession or at least close enough to receive the ball at their feet or in space. The experience of playing against a team with similar attacking ideas last time out against Paraguay whose strengths were also on the flanks helped the U.S. prepare well for this game and as they did in that game, Zardes and Bedoya were fully expected to drop deep to support Johnson and Besler and avoid creating numerical advantages for the South Americans out wide, especially if Paredes and Ayovi overlapped often which was to be expected with their attack minded approach.
Bradley and Jones, who were always ready in case Ecuador tried to tilt their approach and overpower them in midfield, tilted themselves towards the flank where the ball was and joined in on any possibilities to outnumber the South Americans to ensure that their wide attacks didn't ultimately amount to much. Here's an example of how the U.S. set up to deal with Ecuadorian attacks through the left hand side through Montero and Ayovi:
And here's an example of how they set up to deal with similar attacks through the right flank with Valencia and Paredes:
As seen above, those two examples exemplify how the U.S. primarily planned to play against a dangerous Ecuadorian flank attack and it was like this for much of the game, at least for as long as there were 22 players on the pitch. While the USMNT's defensive problems were mainly located out wide from the evidence of the group stage games, they've clearly improved steadily with each match and being able to shut down a good team whose best assets and qualities come in those areas is most indicative yet of the progress that they've made there.
Exposing Ecuadorian Frailties on Counters
While defensively they were doing a solid job of neutralizing Ecuador's best weapons, the U.S. were also keen on having success at the other end through quick counterattacks in transition. Clint Dempsey was often positioned deeper and closer to the midfield to offer them an option and link between the midfield and Bobby Wood up front and become an outlet for counter opportunities.
As mentioned earlier, Ecuador's fullbacks Paredes and Ayovi spend most of games positioned further up the pitch almost as wing backs and as a result they often left plenty of spaces behind them that could be exposed by a good counterattacking team. Not only that, but because of their offensive forays, their two center backs, Frickson Erazo and Arturo Mina, often tried to compensate by spreading themselves out wider and minimizing the lack of presence that their fullbacks had on the defensive end. But in doing so, they created holes in the middle of their central defensive pairing and didn't cover the flanks well either so there were plenty of spaces and halfspaces for the U.S. to attack if they could get on the ball and create some counterattacking plays.
Here's an example:
And another one:
Ecuador's weaknesses at the back were quite apparent, particularly in transitional phases, and the U.S. took advantage of that well enough to win, even if not as much as the could and possibly should have over the course of 90 minutes.
Overall, it was a solid defensive display from the USMNT for the first 65 or 70 minutes before things became shaky and hectic at the back and the team managed to ride their luck a bit with some poor Ecuadorian finishing keeping them in front all the way until the end. The counterattacking performance was pretty good up until the sending off of Jermaine Jones, after which the team suffered on both ends of the pitch but managed to do just enough to get the win and advance to the semifinals.
It's difficult to imagine how Klinsmann will manage to replace Jones and Wood when he doesn't have anyone in the squad who can offer what those two can going forward and, in Jones' case, off the ball as well. Bedoya's defensive work rate could be a miss as well, but with Graham Zusi, that can be substituted fairly decently. It'll be an interesting prospect on Tuesday night to see how Klinsmann copes with the blows that he's been dealt with when faced up against Lionel Messi and Argentina with a place in a historic Copa America final up for grabs.