This was the victory – 2-1 over a relentless Ecuador squad – that the U.S. Men’s Soccer Team had been seeking, the one that nudges them ever closer to international relevance.
They gathered at midfield in a ragged but ecstatic scrum, players and coaches clasped together and leaping like hyped-up children as Seattle let out one of its lusty soccer roars.
This was the victory – 2-1 over a relentless Ecuador squad – that the United States Men’s Soccer Team had been seeking, the one that finally nudged them ever closer to international relevance.
This was the victory that coach Jurgen Klinsmann had been clamoring for. He had implored his team to take the game to Ecuador, to play like they knew they were the better team, like they not only belonged on this stage, but owned it.
And so they played with fervor and attitude, jumping ahead 2-0 and then withstanding a full-out Ecuadorian charge that led to numerous heart-stopping moments before the final whistle blew.
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It was everything you’d want to see in what may have been the biggest soccer match ever played in Seattle – or at least in the conversation for that distinction. It was loud and tense and intense and frenetic and chippy, a Sounders atmosphere with a patriotic bent.
It featured a double red-card in the second half that ejected both American Jermaine Jones (an “absolute joke” and “disgrace” of a call, in Klinsmann’s estimation) and Ecuadorean Antonio Valencia, leaving two 10-man teams that opened the field and ratcheted up the action even more.
At one point, the Ecuador bench got so furious over a foul call that two bottles were hurled onto the field. Later, in stoppage time, the U.S. just barely avoided what would have been a horrifying own goal as keeper Brad Guzan — brilliant all night — just got a hand on it to tip the ball away.
Clint Dempsey, as usual, was in the middle of everything, scoring the first American goal (his 52nd internationally) on a header off a nifty pass from Jones, then setting up Gyasi Zardes for a goal after fighting over two defenders at the left post.
“Clint is special and he showed that tonight,’’ Klinsmann said.
Dempsey knows full well the feeling of a CenturyLink soccer crowd in full-throated glory, and the rest of the U.S. team got to experience that phenomenon as well. But not before Ecuador made them all sweat, players and fans alike, with a rocket shot by Michael Arroyo that slipped past Guzan with about 20 minutes to play.
Though any knockout win is of utmost significance, they beat an Ecuador team that’s not a world power, one they were actually slightly favored against given the huge home-field advantage provided by 47,322 cacophonic fans. The exorbitant ticket prices no doubt prevented a sellout, but those that did attend did justice to a crackling good match.
Klinsmann had said this week he’s sick of the underdog narrative for the U.S. team, making the point that it’s time to rise above it. But they’ll play that role one more time if it’s the expected semifinal matchup with Argentina on Tuesday in Houston.
Beat Messi and the Argentines, and U.S. soccer will finally have taken that step into prominence. This win was riveting but not historic; beating Argentina would be.
Yet this was not a victory to be minimized, considering the alternative.
Indeed, it was probably the biggest U.S. win since stunning Spain, No. 1 in the world and riding a 35-match win streak, in the 2009 Confederations Cup.
Or, perhaps, a year later, when Landon Donovan’s goal in stoppage time gave the U.S. a win over Algeria to advance out of its stage in the World Cup.
This victory didn’t come without a cost. Though the U.S. will have DeAndre Yedlin back from his red card for the semis, three other players will be forced out of action – Jones by virtue of his red, and midfielder Alejandro Bedoya and forward Bobby Wood (who was a whirling dervish at times in this match) as a result of netting their second yellow cards.
That’s the collateral damage of such a passionate atmosphere, but part of being a team that owns the big stage is learning how to control your emotions when it’s most heated. That’s something for the Americans to conquer.
But for the most part, the U.S. squad played with the urgency that this game required. The fact that Ecuador did, too, is why the night was so mesmerizing.
“The team performance was outstanding,’’ Klinsmann said.
“They were helping each other all over the field.”
This was the match the U.S. desperately craved, and needed. Now they need another one.