By Alex Baker
Santa Monica, Calif. – In a contentious encounter in which both teams were reduced to 10 men the U.S.A. emerged with a hard-fought 2-1 victory over Ecuador to book passage through to the semifinals of the Copa America for the first time since 1995.
Clint Dempsey opened the scoring for the U.S. in the first half and Gyasi Zardes doubled the lead in the second half before Michael Arroyo pulled one back for Ecuador.
But while Dempsey and Zardes were the ones with their names on the score sheet, the U.S. owed much of its success of the night to a command performance by Bobby Wood. The 23-year-old striker, who will play his club football with Hamburg next season, was a near-constant menace for the Colombian defense.
He helped set up Dempsey’s goal with a penetrating run behind the Ecuador defense, laying the ball back for Jermaine Jones, whose cross found Dempsey. The Seattle Sounders man rose in the box to head home the U.S. opener in the 23rd minute in front of an emphatic hometown crowd at CenturyLink field.
Wood made a similar run in behind in the second half, playing a pass to Matt Besler who found Dempsey; who this time sent the ball across goal, into the path of Zardes, who from point blank range, scored what is perhaps both the easiest and most important goal of his international career to date.
Ecuador pulled one back just 10 minutes later when Michael Arroyo converted on a set piece to make it 2-1 in the 74th minute. By that time, both teams had been reduced to 10 men following an altercation early in the second half that saw Ecuador’s Antonio Valencia shown a second yellow card and Jones earn a straight red.
It was that incident more than anything else that defined the timbre of the second half in a match where the ref was called upon to flash four yellow cards and two reds. Ecuador coach Gustavo Quinteros was also given his marching orders late in the second half, following an outburst in which water bottles were hurled onto the pitch.
But putting the various contentious issues aside, the game was the most confident performance we’ve seen from the U.S. in some time.
U.S. center-backs John Brooks and Geoff Cameron put in another masterful performance at the heart of the defense, as did keeper Brad Guzan. The win sees the U.S. through to the Copa America semifinals for the first time in 20 years, setting the stage for a likely encounter with tournament favorites Argentina.
While there was much to take encouragement from about the U.S. performance on Wednesday, Jurgen Klinsmann’s team will have to make due against the top-ranked team in the world without key players Jones and Wood, who will be suspended due to yellow card accumulation.
But there aren’t many teams in this tournament or anywhere else who’d begrudge the U.S. for going out at the hands of Lionel Messi and Argentina. And in spite of the opening loss to Colombia, the U.S. has made a good account of itself in this Copa America. Whatever happens in the semifinals, Klinsmann’s team can hopefully carry that confidence into the next round of World Cup qualifying.