Clint Dempsey does it again as US beats Ecuador en route to Copa semis
SEATTLE -- The U.S. national team is on to the semifinals of the Copa America Centenario after a hard-fought 2-1 win over Ecuador on Thursday in front of a raucous home crowd of 47,322 at CenturyLink Field. Goals by Clint Dempsey and Gyasi Zardes on either side of half-time paced the Americans, who will meet the Argentina-Venezuela winner on Tuesday in Houston, Texas.
Here are three quick thoughts on Thursday's big win.
1. Dempsey does it again
When Dempsey was left off coach Jurgen Klinsmann's roster in November for the first two qualifiers of the 2018 World Cup cycle, it appeared that the veteran's national team days could be numbered. But Dempsey, who was recalled for a pair of March qualifiers, has been so good in this tournament that Klinsmann started off this week in Seattle by saying he hopes the 33-year-old is still kicking around in Russia two years from now. Nobody should count him out.
"Deuce" has been lights-out for the Americans during this Copa; his 22nd-minute strike against Ecuador was his third in three games, and he also helped set up Zardes' game winner. Dempsey is tied with Argentina's Lionel Messi atop the tournament's goal-scoring leaderboard. Simply put, Dempsey -- who continues his assault on the retired Landon Donovan's all-time goal-scoring record, now just five goals shy of Donovan's 57 -- remains the country's most reliable scorer by a country mile.
Two years is an eternity in soccer. A lot can and will happen between now and then. But Dempsey has been brilliant in this competition, and a head-to-head meeting with Messi & Co. in the semifinals is his likely reward.
2. The hosts are playing with house money
With Klinsmann's pretournament goal of reaching the semifinals met, the pressure is off the U.S. If they do face Argentina -- the Albiceleste are a heavy favorite to beat Venezuela on Saturday in Foxborough, Massachusetts -- it's a game nobody expects them to win, which can only help the hosts.
The Americans will be short-handed. Jermaine Jones was red-carded in the second half for confronting Michael Arroyo after Antonio Valencia's hard foul on Alejandro Bedoya, and Bedoya and Bobby Wood will also miss out after picking up their second yellows of the tournament. But that only means more opportunities for reserves like Kyle Beckerman and Graham Zusi, who were excellent in helping close out Thursday's win after entering as substitutes.
It's even possible that 17-year-old Christian Pulisic will get a shot up front in Wood's place. Why not? At this point, the U.S. has nothing to lose.
3. Ecuador unable to use its biggest advantage
It was no secret coming into this match that Ecuador's big strength was on the wings. With Valencia and Jefferson Montero running riot on the flanks, that was always going to be the place where coach Gustavo Quinteros' team would find the Americans most vulnerable -- especially since U.S. right-back DeAndre Yedlin was serving a one-match suspension for the double-yellow he picked up in the hosts' Group A finale.
Klinsmann responded by moving starting left-back Fabian Johnson to the right side and sliding Matt Besler -- a career center-back -- into Johnson's vacated place. It looked as if Klinsmann was overthinking things yet again; the coach could have simply plugged Michael Orozco, who filled in ably for Yedlin vs. Paraguay.
It was a bold move, one Klinsmann would've been heavily criticized for if it hadn't worked out. But it did. The left-footed Besler isn't a full-back, but he started all four games for the Americans at the 2014 World Cup, and he is a better defender than Orozco. Bedoya helped out in front of Besler, who was able to contain Valencia while Johnson shut down Montero on the opposite side.
With Yedlin available for the semis, Besler will probably be back on the bench. Still, this is one example of Klinsmann's tinkering that hit exactly the right note.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.