U.S. team spirit key to sealing place in Copa America semifinals
SEATTLE -- If Clint Dempsey is on the downward slope of his decorated U.S. national team career, somebody forgot to tell the 33-year-old Seattle Sounders forward.
Playing in front of his home fans at CenturyLink Field, Dempsey's goal and assist helped the U.S. record a 2-1 win against Ecuador on Thursday, vaulting the Copa America Centenario hosts into next week's semifinal in Houston.
It was the third straight game in this tournament in which Dempsey scored his side's opening goal, and this consistency is nothing new. Dating back to the beginning of last year, the Texan has now found the net in 13 of his past 18 international appearances.
"I don't marvel at it now -- he's been doing it for so long that it's almost come to be expected a little bit," goalkeeper Brad Guzan said after Thursday's match. "If he gets a clear chance, more often than not he's going to score. He's a big-time player for us. I couldn't be happier for him."
Dempsey took home Man of the Match honors for his performance, but there were no shortage of other candidates on the night. Far from a one-man show, this was a team win of the very highest order; a signature victory; a litmus test passed with flying red, white and blue.
The U.S. squad had been in a rut for the better part of two years heading into the competition. It's easy to forget after Thursday's result that they would have been all but eliminated from World Cup qualifying contention with a home loss against Guatemala back in March. They won that game 4-0, and now, they're likely to face off against Lionel Messi and mighty Argentina for a spot in the Copa final on June 26 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
"Our program is maturing," coach Jurgen Klinsmann said afterward. "Our players are maturing. They are learning with every game they can play in this type of an environment. This is what we had hoped for."
The fans are starting to get what they had hoped for, too. After too many listless displays under Klinsmann, his team appears to be finally finding its identity. The funny thing is, it's a new and improved version of the one it's always had; while there's more quality in the player pool than there has been in more than a decade, team spirit and hard work still makes the U.S. more than the sum of its parts.
Let's be clear about this, though. Beating Ecuador -- FIFA's 13th ranked team -- was no fluke. The U.S. enjoyed the majority of the possession in the first half, even after going up a goal, and they had the better of the scoring chances.
The balance tilted when the game opened up shortly after halftime, as both teams were reduced to 10 men -- Ecuador's Antonio Valencia picked up a second yellow for a hard foul on Alejandro Bedoya; Jermaine Jones saw a straight red for confronting Valencia -- and as the South Americans desperately tried to get back into the game. In the end, though, the home team deserved to move on.
"It was a great night," U.S. captain Michael Bradley said. "To go deep into 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 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."
With DeAndre Yedlin suspended, Klinsmann was always going to have to make one lineup change, yet Matt Besler was still a surprise inclusion on Klinsmann's team sheet. It was the central defender who was charged with keeping Valencia in check on the left flank, while normal left back Fabian Johnson slid into Yedlin's spot on the right.
"I've got to be honest: I was a little nervous going into the game," Besler said. "I don't have a ton of experience playing left back. I thought we did well going up a guy like Valencia, who plays at Manchester United, one of the biggest clubs in the world. It's not an easy task. But I think for the most part we handled him. I just tried to play within myself."
He also got help from Bedoya in front of him, and center back John Brooks to his right -- who seems to be getting better with every game. The team was the star on Thursday, and although it has already met Klinsmann's goal of reaching the semifinals, the sense is that these players have their sights firmly set on the trophy, and that they fancy their chances of hoisting it. That's a remarkable turn of events since losing to Colombia in the Copa opener.
"We haven't won too many second-round games against big opponents," U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati told reporters following Klinsmann's news conference, just over a week after he sounded like he was considering parting ways with the German manager. "Now we're guaranteed two more games."
It's not the third-place game the players are thinking about, however. "A lot of guys have been huge for us, have stepped up and played well," said Dempsey, deflecting the credit for the win. "We're still not going to celebrate too much because we know there's a lot of work to be done. We want to get to the finals. Hopefully we can do that."
After what happened on Thursday night, nobody is going to tell him they can't.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.