Ecuador is going to the Copa América Centenario quarterfinals. There’s nothing too surprising in that sentence; La Tri aren’t a favorite to win the tournament, but they’re not exactly underdogs, either. What separates the boys in yellow from the likes of Mexico and Brazil is that they’re executing their gameplan. Based on how they tore Haiti apart tonight in their final group stage match, they will be a legitimate threat against the United States in the quarterfinal.
What is Ecuador’s game plan, exactly? Pace, pace and more pace. They’ve been shredding teams with their counterattack, pressing back lines well and turning on the afterburners once they’ve won the ball. 36-year-old captain Walter Ayoví, who's spent much of his career in Liga MX, is nominally a left back, but tonight against Haiti he served as an all-action playmaker, helping Christian Noboa win the ball and thread the ball to the attackers. Their one-touch possession was a thing to behold. Yes, it was only Haiti, but the quality on the ball that players like Ayoví and Noboa have only demonstrates the risks for the opposition to try and control possession.
All of Ayoví and Noboa’s ability would be lost if they didn’t have three players in front of them who are swimming in speed. Valencias Enner and Antonio, along with Jefferson Montero, all toil in the English Premier League as role players. Enner Valencia makes an impact with West Ham but was felled by injury last year. Antonio Valencia was made a right back with Manchester United. Montero struggled with form at Swansea. When they all got together for their country, however, they flew.
The scary thing about Ecuador’s counterattack is how fluidly it can switch from one side of field to the other. Ayoví can connect Montero on the left side, whose touch is silky enough to switch to Antonio Valencia to set up Enner on the right side. The third option is letting Enner Valencia do it all himself.
It's not just against minnows like Haiti that Ecuador looks dangerous. Their match against Brazil saw them putting a makeshift Selecao under constant pressure. Ecuador should have won but for the wrongly disallowed goal, and it wouldn’t have been an unjust result. When you have a high-pressing, fluid-passing, field-switching collection of banshees facing you, what are you supposed to do about it?
Gustavo Quinteros is the only head coach in the tournament who has stuck to his guns, even after the first 20 minutes against Peru could have shaken his confidence. By contrast, Mexico has rotated lineups and formations, and the absences of both Lionel Messi and Ángel Di María have at times changed Argentina’s look. Uruguay folded like a cheap card table. Colombia has been ineffective when James Rodríguez isn’t on the ball. The United States is, well, the United States. Ecuador has stayed resolute, pressing the opposition and turning the front three loose. The United States back line had better be on notice in Seattle on Wednesday.