The United States men's national team is heading to the Copa America semifinals after a wild 2-1 victory over Ecuador, featuring red cards for both teams. A potential match against Lionel Messi and Argentina awaits, but the Americans will have to face their opponent -- whoever it is -- very shorthanded.
With DeAndre Yedlin suspended, Jurgen Klinsmann opted to start Matt Besler -- usually a center back -- at left back. Regular left back Fabian Johnson moved to the right side.
The USMNT took the lead in the 22nd minute, thanks to Clint Dempsey. He started the move with a forward pass, and the ball found its way to Bobby Wood, who held up before passing to Jermaine Jones. Dempsey continued his run from midfield, and Jones found him with an excellent diagonal that Dempsey headed into the net.
Alejandro Bedoya had a chance to double the Americans' lead in the 42nd minute when Dempsey played him in on goal, but he put his shot right at the keeper. Michael Arroyo had Ecuador's best chance of the first half in the 45th minute, when he got in behind the defense but, like Bedoya, shot right at the opposing keeper.
The game was altered significantly in the 51st minute, when both teams were handed red cards. Antonio Valencia earned a second yellow for kicking out at Bedoya, but Jones retaliated by shoving Arroyo in the face during a scuffle afterward and was shown a straight red card.
After that, the Americans were struggling but found a second goal on an excellent counter. Again, Wood was involved by holding up a long ball in the box, then laying off to Dempsey. He chipped to Zardes, who knocked it down back to Dempsey. Whether his strike was a cross or a shot isn't clear, but it didn't matter -- Zardes tapped it into the back of the net.
But Ecuador fought back quickly. Arroyo redeemed himself for his earlier miss, scoring an excellent goal off a set piece in the 74th minute to halve the US lead. Enner Valencia should have equalized two minutes later too, when he smacked an uncontested header off the crossbar.
Sensing serious problems, Klinsmann made substitutions to shore up his midfield, bringing on Kyle Beckerman and Graham Zusi for Dempsey and Bedoya. In the final minute, Steve Birnbaum came on for Zardes. The USMNT still had to face pressure for the rest of the game -- John Brooks nearly scored an own goal on a clearance that just barely went out for a corner -- but those subs worked, with their fresh legs helping the Americans hold on to a win.
United States: Guzan, Besler, Brooks, Cameron, Johnson, Zardes (Birnbaum 90'), Bradley, Jones (red 52'), Bedoya (Zusi 81'), Dempsey (Beckerman 74'), Wood
Goals: Dempsey (22'), Zardes (65')
Ecuador: Dominguez, Ayovi, Erazo, Paredes (Ayovi 82'), Mina, Noboa (Gaibor 62'), Gruezo (Ramirez 72'), Arroyo, Montero, E. Valencia, A. Valencia (red 52')
Goals: Arroyo (74')
Clint Dempsey is still the USMNT's best attacker -- There were calls to drop Dempsey coming into Copa America because of a belief that he didn't fit the system. Ultimately, even though he was solid against Costa Rica, those concerns were mostly correct. So what did Jurgen Klinsmann do? He changed the system. Back as the second striker in a 4-4-2, Dempsey flourished. He was the the key forward against Paraguay in the final group stage game, then he delivered a goal and an assist in this game. He's still worth having on the pitch and building a formation around.
Klinsmann made the right call with his back line -- There was no ideal replacement for the suspended DeAndre Yedlin. Maybe that was Klinsmann's fault in the way he picked his 23-man squad, but there was no changing that this week. And the option he picked -- moving Fabian Johnson to right back and starting Matt Besler at left back -- turned out to be a decent one. The defense was shaky at times but ultimately benefitted from keeping the regular central defense pairing together and from not having Michael Orozco on the pitch.
The USMNT will miss their suspended players very much -- While Dempsey and John Brooks were superstars once again, the next three best players might be the ones that were suspended. Jermaine Jones is out for the rest of Copa America, while Bobby Wood and Alejandro Bedoya will not play in the semifinal. In a likely matchup against Lionel Messi and Argentina, the USMNT will be enormous underdogs.