USMNT

USMNT, Seattle brace for huge Copa America Centenario clash

SEATTLE — There is talk in Seattle soccer circles this week that perhaps the looming Copa America Centenario quarterfinal is the biggest soccer match in the city’s history.


A knockout match of a major tournament in one of the city’s most vociferous soccer hot beds? And the U.S. men’s national team is involved? That’ll do the trick.


There is a debate to be had, but the fact that it’s easily in the discussion adequately places the importance of the thing. The U.S. men’s national team hasn’t played in a tournament this big on its own shores in 22 years, and now the show is, perhaps improbably, coming to Seattle. After the U.S. won its group thanks to a late 3-2 Costa Rica win over Colombia to finish out Group A, the U.S. snuck into the top seed.


In lieu of playing in New Jersey, the U.S. instead traveled to Seattle for a match for the first time since 2013. And now they get Ecuador in the quarterfinals on Thursday, with a mere three wins separating the U.S. from its first ever Copa America title.



So yes, Seattle can expect some fireworks for one of the most heralded matches in the Pacific Northwest in memory.


“This is a big, big game (Thursday) night here in beautiful Seattle,” U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said in a press conference Wednesday at CenturyLink Field. “We are thrilled to play in front of that crowd, but it’s going to be a lot of work. It’s going to be a nail-biter like the last one with Paraguay. But there’s a good chance. It’s a 50/50 game and we’re hungry to go into the semifinals.”


With a win, the Americans advance to their first semifinal in this tournament since the 1995 Copa America, with a possible matchup against Leo Messi and Argentina awaiting them in Houston. The fact that the tournament is on home soil for the first time ever only heightens the stakes.


The players feel that too.


“It’s a quarterfinal, a chance to play in a big game in an unbelievable stadium in front of potentially what could be the best crowd we’ve seen in a long time,” midfielder Michael Bradley said. “On our end there’s excitement. As a player you want to play in the biggest games. You want to play when the spotlight comes on. (Thursday) night is certainly one of those opportunities.”


Since losing the first match of group play 2-0 against Colombia, the U.S. filleted Costa Rica 4-0 and held on with 10 men to beat Paraguay 1-0 in a gritty albeit complete victory. In all three matches, Klinsmann rolled with the same starting lineup, the first time he’s ever done that as a national team coach in three consecutive matches.

With Clint Dempsey in sizzling form and his midfield trio of Bradley, Alejandro Bedoya and Jermaine Jones gelling at the right time, Klinsmann hasn’t had many difficult lineup decisions to make this month.


While he’s unlikely to make any changes of his own volition against a lightning-fast Ecuador side that tied Brazil and Peru and only beat Haiti, he’ll be forced to make at least one.


DeAndre Yedlin picked up two rapid-fire yellow cards against Paraguay and is suspended for the Ecuador match. Maybe the biggest lingering question about the Americans entering the match at CenturyLink Field is what Klinsmann does with a right back position that’s suddenly become vacant.


He doesn’t have another pure right back on the 23-man roster, and so it’s likely he’ll have to do some shifting. One option could be pulling Monterrey left back Edgar Castillo off the bench and bumping the versatile Fabian Johnson to right back, a position he notably manned at the 2014 World Cup. But there are other options, namely leaving the other three defensive positions alone and inserting veteran Michael Orozco directly into Yedlin’s old spot.


Klinsmann revealed few clues as to his path forward during his press conference on Wednesday, but he did praise Orozco’s veteran calm and ability to slot into that position in a pinch.


“Michael has always been there for the team,” Klinsmann said. “He’s never complained if he was left out for a World Cup qualifier or for a specific game. Every time he came in, he did his job. He’s a very, very special individual.”


It’s an important position against Ecuador in particular. Whoever plays right back is likely to face devastatingly effective left winger Jefferson Montero, who’s already terrorized this competition with his speed and agility. Yedlin was a perfect marker for Montero with his pure speed, but Klinsmann will have to roll with Plan B and hope Montero has a quiet evening anyway.

That’s something of a theme with this Ecuadorian side, which can play off the counter and quick breaks with the best of them. Along with Montero, Enner and Antonio Valencia are nightmares in space, and Christian Noboa can pick apart an unaware back line. Bradley and his back four - however it ultimately looks - will have its hands full.


The U.S. did beat this Ecuador team 1-0 in a tune-up friendly for this tournament in May, but the team largely pushed that win off as of little consequence come Thursday night. A team as dangerous as Ecuador can pull out a win on any given day, and everything resets come Thursday night


“We know it’s going to be a difficult game,” said goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who’s played every minute for the U.S. in this tournament. “They’ve got good players. But at the same time, we know we’ve got good players. We know we can cause them problems. We’re confident. We’re excited by this challenge of being in a quarterfinal.”


The Copa America is a grinder, and the U.S. has already traveled from the West Coast to the East Coast and back again in the span of less than two weeks for four games. They’ll also deal with a rules change, as the Copa America knockout round matches all end after 90 minutes and go directly to penalty kicks. That should add a layer of newness to the tournament that could catch teams off guard.


In the end, the U.S. is preparing for its biggest game since the 2014 World Cup and perhaps its biggest game in Seattle in history. Whatever happens, Thursday should be a wild ride.


“So far, so good,” Klinsmann said. “All the teams have travel schedules. You can argue now who has the better travel schedule. It can go team-by-team. But at the end of the day, it is what it is. We had a tough one two years ago in Brazil, went to beautiful Manaus in between two games. And it all worked out fine. I think the players are used to that. Now they are hungry for more.”

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