Clint Dempsey

Clint Dempsey, USMNT feed off Seattle crowd in dramatic Copa America Centenario win

SEATTLE — It was about the time of Enner Valencia’s second flubbed header deep into the dark woods of the 87th minute that the desperately partisan crowd at CenturyLink Field realized the Americans might not get out of this one alive after all.

At the very least, it would not be so easy as it first seemed it might.

Valencia had just directed an open header wide a minute earlier, and the manic edge to the second half had cut the game down to its rawest nerve. The U.S. led 2-1, but the advantage seemed slim, if it was even there at all. When the West Ham striker missed again, another beautifully framed header dribbling wide directly in front of the raucous American Outlaws section, the mood turned desperate. Every gathering Ecuador attack was greeted with a loud nervous hum, every U.S. clear met with relieved cheers.

This was a Copa America Centenario quarterfinal in Seattle. Nothing seems to come easy for the U.S. when the stakes get this high.

And yet this was not the 2015 Gold Cup, nor the World Cup the year before it. There would be no knockout capitulation this time, no loss on home soil to trouble over. This was a knockout game, and a winnable knockout game, and the U.S. won it.

The Americans are in the semifinals of a major tournament under a suddenly ebullient Jurgen Klinsmann. The Ecuadorians fell 2-1, the match finished 10 vs. 10 and everything suddenly seemed to be coming up Red, White and Blue.

Clint Dempsey’s fingerprints were all over the match, which is perhaps not a surprise considering his current ripping form eddied in with his propensity to play well in a building and a roaring crowd he knows intimately. Dempsey scored again, smashing in a 22nd-minute header off a Jermaine Jones cross at an end of the field where he’s done that at least a half dozen times in a Sounders jersey.

Dempsey’s role in Klinsmann’s perceived 4-3-3 at the start of the tournament was unclear, but Klinsmann rapidly moved his formation into a nominal, lopsided 4-4-2, pairing Dempsey with Bobby Wood at the top of the formation. The partnership launched both into a new realm of form, and Dempsey in particular has been a beneficiary. As Wood and Dempsey swapped roles dropping in and playing as the lead striker, Ecuador’s back line had trouble tracking the primary threat.

“(Dempsey) is right there where he should be,” Klinsmann said. “This performance from him tonight was unbelievable, and obviously in front of his home crowd. He’s special.”

As for that home crowd, the U.S. feasted off the undeniably rowdy atmosphere generated by the deafening horde of nearly 48,000 packed into the stadium. It was the largest crowd for a U.S. men’s national team game in the city’s history, and at least in the latter stages of the match - when Ecuador sought an equalizer that looked increasingly likely as the match wore on - it acted like kindling under the team’s motivation.

“It was an amazing crowd,” said center back John Brooks, who’s come into his own in this tournament as a sure starter. “Great support the whole 90 minutes. Of course you feel it, especially when it’s a close game. You need the fans. They did a great job.”

There certainly hasn’t been a match quite this mad in recent U.S. national team history. An incident with about a half hour left to play left Jermaine Jones with a straight red card and Ecuadorian right winger Antonio Valencia with two yellows. Both marched sullenly to the locker room, the U.S. leading 1-0 and the game destined for a fast a furious 10 vs. 10 finish.

The incident happened directly in front of the fourth official, who counseled the referee on his decisions. Jones appeared to graze Valencia’s face with his fist, which provoked a response that got both men kicked out of the game. Klinsmann, for one, was not impressed.

“It was an absolute joke,” Klinsmann said. “I was right there, and the fourth official made the decision. Not the referee. He followed the advice of the fourth official out there. This is a disgrace, a decision like that.”

Jones will miss the final, along with Alejandro Bedoya and Bobby Wood, both of whom picked up yellow cards and will sit from card accumulation. One of the few sticky outcomes of a match that could’ve hardly gone better.

In the end the formation and the soccer it pulled out of a team that was once so maligned was the trick. Klinsmann has been derided for being tactically naive in the past, but if that was ever true it certainly wasn’t on Thursday. Even his decision to sub in center back Matt Besler at left back and move Fabian Johnson to right back to cover for the suspended DeAndre Yedlin ultimately didn’t hurt him. Ecuador failed to overload Besler’s side with Antonio Valencia, who moved too far centrally to catch the positionally awkward Besler off his castle walls.

In fact, Ecuador’s lone goal came off a frankly brilliantly run set piece with 15 minutes left. They didn’t score in the run of play, in the same way no one has on the U.S. in this tournament.

“It was a great night,” said central midfielder Michael Bradley. “To go deep in a tournament you need to be able to win games in different ways. I think we’ve done that. We’ve had nights where we’ve played very well, scored goals. We’ve had other nights where we’ve had to defend, to suffer together, to make sure that our mentality carries us through. Tonight was probably a little bit of both.”

Klinsmann will have to do without three important starters against whoever wins the matchup between Venezuela and Argentina. The likely pairing is against the Albiceleste and Leo Messi, the resident best player in the world. It will not be easy. But then that’s nothing particularly new for this team. Nothing it does seems to be easy, and wins in big spots seem to come anyway.

Thursday’s win may well have been the biggest in Klinsmann’s tenure, bigger even than the 2013 Gold Cup final. Considering the stage, the competition - Ecuador currently leads CONMEBOL 2018 World Cup qualifying - and the fact that it’s on home soil, there’s an argument to be made that this was even bigger than the 2-1 win over Ghana in the 2014 World Cup that paved the way for the Americans’ short run to the Round of 16.

Whatever it means for this particular team, Thursday was undoubtedly a night to remember for the U.S.

“We’ll give everything we have with all the respect for the opponents, the same as we’ve talked about Colombia and Ecuador and Paraguay,” Klinsmann said. “They’re all wonderful teams. But we’ve come so far now, and we get even hungrier for the next step.”



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