Hope. It’s a four letter word, but one that we love using in happy situations as opposed to trying ones. It’s used to express that remarkable emotion which you feel building up in your chest, like a little bubble of nearly inexpressible happiness and optimism. It’s the most powerful emotion in the world; it cannot be quashed, and is what leads people to do the most incredible of things. At the moment, hope is what is carrying the United States Men’s National Team on one of the most incredible tournament runs in their history.
Ecuador victory will not soon be forgotten
On Thursday night, the USMNT defeated Ecuador 2-1 at CenturyLink Field in Seattle in one of the finest matches the host nation have ever played. They attacked with desire and precision and defended doggedly. The game was an instant classic, filled with chances both taken and fluffed and no shortage of controversy.
When the nation’s great footballing successes are brought up in conversation, the semifinal appearance at the 1930 World Cup, the victory over England, “the shot heard round the world,” at the 1950 World Cup, the victory over Colombia at the 1994 World Cup, the semifinal appearance at the 1995 Copa America, and the quarterfinal appearance at the 2002 World Cup are invoked. However, following the USMNT’s historic triumph over Los Cafeteros, there is now another victory to add to that pantheon. And, in large part due to the hope which has been created and allowed to fester during this tournament, they could be on their way to what might be their finest ever result.
Don't want to be done here
The hosts of the Copa America Centenario are now turning their attention to Tuesday evening when they will take on either Argentina or Venezuela in the semifinals of this historic tournament. After the USMNT fell 2-0 at the hands of Colombia in the tournament’s opening match, few would have expected them to be in this position. However, after a morale-boosting 4-0 victory over Costa Rica, a gutsy defensive performance in a 1-0 win over Paraguay to get out of the group, and Thursday’s thrilling 2-1 decision over Ecuador, this is a team which seems to believe it can do anything in this tournament.
There’s no way around acknowledging that the USMNT were disappointing in 2015, and didn’t play anywhere near as well as they should have during the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup. However, they’ve been brilliant in this tournament. Clint Dempsey is in contention to be player of the tournament with three goals and three assists through four matches, John Brooks looks like one of the best central defenders in the Americas, and hope is once again pulsating through the American soccer community.
Players don't want to be done yet
That sense of hope is notable within the players as well. Following his man of the match performance, Dempsey stated that the squad hopes to find themselves still playing come June 26th, the day of the final.
“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,” said the Seattle Sounders man.
Though he said that post-game, Dempsey could be forgiven for a brief memory lapse—the scenes of celebration from the USMNT at the center circle following the final whistle showed just how much the victory meant to them. As they squad came together to sing, dance and celebrate only their third ever knockout stage victory over a non-CONCACAF nation at a major tournament, it truly felt as though they are in the midst of something special.
Semifinal will be hugely difficult
If, as most expect, they find themselves going up against Argentina in the semifinal, then they truly would need something extraordinarily special to get past La Albiceleste. The undoubted tournament favorites boast the strongest attacking line-up in the world. In Angel Di Maria, Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero, Argentina have the world’s best player, its best winger and arguably its two best center forwards. Though Poland’s Robert Lewandowski might take issue with that last statement, the Argentine attack is to be feared at all costs.
The fact that the United States’ victory over Ecuador could prove to be a pyrrhic one shouldn’t be overlooked either. Without the suspended Jermaine Jones, Bobby Wood and Alejandro Bedoya, Jurgen Klinsmann has quite the possibly the biggest squad selection choice of his USMNT career on his hands. Though Deandre Yedlin’s absence was felt during the Ecuador match, simply finding one replacement is far simpler than adequately covering for the absence of three players who’ve started every match of the tournament to this point.
Who starts in the semifinal?
With Yedlin returning, Klinsmann’s first line-up choice is what to do with Fabian Johnson. The Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder started at right back in the quarterfinal while Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler slotted in at left back. One option for the manager is to keep Besler at left back and move Johnson up to the wing, where he would fill in for Wood. However, Besler is a natural center back, and forcing him to play an unnatural position against the likes of Messi, Higuain and Aguero may be a bridge too far. If that is the way that Klinsmann feels, he can move Johnson back to left back and play Graham Zusi up on the wing. Or, if Klinsmann is in a truly adventurous mood, he could opt for 17-year-old Christian Pulisic. The young winger has been making headlines since breaking into the Borussia Dortmund first team over the winter, and has impressed in his four appearances for the national team but has yet to start a senior international. Much like starting Besler at left back, which could be too much for the youngster.
After sorting out the questions on both wings, Klinsmann will have to decide who to pair in the center of the pitch. Without two of the three men who’ve played central midfield in all four matches in the tournament, this will be a much more difficult line-up decision. Though most of the focus on Argentina is on the attack force, they also boast Javier Mascherano and Ever Banega through the middle of the park. Naturally, Klinsmann must find a midfield line which won’t be overrun. With Michael Bradley still available for the semifinal, it’s likely that the manager will play Kyle Beckerman alongside Bradley, operating as a double pivot in front of the backline to offer additional defensive cover. The third man in the midfield will likely be Darlington Nagbe, deployed in a more advanced role in an effort to provide some attacking support to what will probably be a frustrated United States attack.
It will be one of the most difficult tasks the USMNT have ever had in front of them. Under normal circumstances, it would seem nearly impossible. However, considering the players that they’re missing, it feels all but insurmountable. Yet, when a team is hopeful, optimistic, and believes in itself, it does feel as though nothing is impossible. At the moment, it feels like the USMNT can do just about anything. Only time will tell if that means they can actually beat one of the top teams in the world.