The Sounders forward heads in first goal and assists on go-ahead goal at CenturyLink Field.
Clint Dempsey was in his element.
CenturyLink Field, host of Thursday’s remarkable Copa America quarterfinal between the United States and Ecuador, doubles as Dempsey’s club home, of course. For 17 MLS games a season, he pulls on rave green and swaggers down that same southeast tunnel.
But it was more than that: Dempsey has always thrived on nights like these, elimination on the line and U.S. Soccer crest on his chest.
He raises his game with the stakes, and on Thursday night, Dempsey produced one of the signature performances of his career and provided CenturyLink Field with one of its all-time great soccer moments. Dempsey scored and added an assist in a 2-1 USMNT win that ended with both teams down to 10 men and victory in doubt all the way until the final whistle.
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The U.S. will now face the Argentina-Venezuela winner in the semifinals on Tuesday in Houston.
“Clint is special,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “He showed that tonight. He showed that the last couple weeks and he’s showed that throughout his entire career. … This performance from him tonight was unbelievable, in front of his home crowd. He’s special.”
Dempsey broke the deadlock in the 22nd minute, rising high and finishing off Jermaine Jones’ cross with a pinpoint header. Dempsey had initiated the decisive move, too, threading a pass for Bobby Wood behind Ecuador’s back line.
Just a few weeks and what feels like a lifetime ago, some were questioning Dempsey’s spot in the starting lineup after the 2-0 loss to Colombia in the tournament opener. The USMNT’s 4-3-3 was awkward, lacked fluency and rhythm, and both Gyasi Zardes and Wood looked out of place on the wing. Maybe it was time to pass the torch to the younger generation.
“Not worried about that,” Dempsey said Thursday. “I go out and perform.”
He has scored in every game since. His goal against Ecuador was the 52nd of his career, five back of Landon Donovan’s record. Dempsey might have added another one, too, his 65th-minute shot rolling toward the back post. But Zardes wasn’t leaving that to chance, smashing the ball over the line.
“I’m a goal-scorer,” Zardes said sheepishly afterward. “I had to make sure.”
By that point, dueling red cards to Ecuador’s Antonio Valencia and U.S. midfielder Jones had blown the game wide open. Valencia had wiped out Alejandro Bedoya and was shown a second yellow card. Jones brushed an opponent’s face with a closed fist and given a straight ejection.
Klinsmann called the decision an “absolute joke” and a “disgrace.” But whatever it was, it turned the game on its head.
“At that point, it was going to be a frantic finish,” U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley said. “Style points go out the window. … We had to suffer and be willing to do whatever it takes. The atmosphere and the crowd really pushes us in a big way.”
The U.S. hung on for dear life, yellow cards piling up. Bedoya also picked up a card that will keep him out of the semifinal, and goalkeeper Brad Guzan was booked for time wasting.
The 47,322 in attendance howled their displeasure at calls that went Ecuador’s way and roared their approval at every clearance. Projectiles flew from the Ecuadorean bench after a late foul, and its coach was asked to leave the field.
Deep in stoppage time, U.S. defender John Brooks deflected a shot toward his own goal that was deflected wide by an alert Guzan.
“The one that hit Guzan in the shoulder? I just wanted to see if he was still awake,” Brooks said.
Guzan was more than that — he was alive. So was the crowd, if barely. And so is the United States, berth in the semifinal confirmed by a primal roar that Dempsey knows intimately well.