SEATTLE, Wash. -- U.S. Soccer realized another important milestone in Seattle Thursday night, as a shorthanded men's national team squad survived a stiff challenge from Ecuador to advance in the 2016 Copa America Centenario.
The Yanks took an early lead in the first half, survived the sending off of Jermaine Jones in the second half, then doubled their advantage soon after to take an important 2-0 lead. Heroic defending late, after Ecuador began imposing their will on the game, earned the U.S. a stunning 2-1 victory in the tournament's quarterfinal round.
"This was a breakthrough for us," said U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. "The team performance was outstanding."
Clint Dempsey, playing in the same stadium that hosts his club team the Seattle Sounders, thrilled the pro-USA crowd with a perfect headed goal in the 22nd minute. And following red card ejections to Jones and Ecuador's Antonio Valencia in the 52nd minute, Gyassi Zardes tapped home a second goal in the 65th minute.
Then, Michael Arroyo slammed home a goal for Ecuador in the 74th minute, and the visitors seemed poised to equalize late. But the U.S. defense held strong and preserved the one-goal advantage.
"We talked about the magnitude of this game," added Klinsmann, "and it was no accident that Ecuador put us in a difficult place at the end of the game."
The win was also a watershed moment for the U.S. men's national team, as it has never won three games in a significant major tournament, such as the FIFA World Cup and the Copa America, outside of its own regional championship, the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
For Ecuador, it was a stinging loss, compounded by the late sending off of their head coach Gustavo Quinteros for throwing water bottles onto the field in protest of a suspect foul call.
"It was tale of two matches," said assistant coach Luis Suarez, speaking for the ejected Quinteros. "In the first half, the USA dominated, but the second half was all Ecuador."
"They were strong and physical on defense," added Suarez, "but we continued to try until the end of the match."
The USMNT moves on to the semifinal round of the Copa America and a likely date with the number one team in the world, Argentina, next Tuesday night in Houston, Texas. Argentina faces Venezuela this Saturday in the third of four quarterfinal contests.
And now for the sights and sounds of what was a very dramatic victory for the USA.
Outside the stadium -- Fans from all over the country descended on the Pioneer Square neighborhood of Seattle, filling the many bars and restaurants hours ahead of kick-off. Sporadic, but regular, pro-USA chants were heard along every street surrounding CenturyLink Field, especially along the busy Occidental Street corridor.
Pregame warm-ups -- With regular defender DeAndre Yedlin unavailable to play due to his red card in the group stage finale, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann elected to insert Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler in his stead. Klinsmann did flip-flop regular left back Fabian Johnson to the right side in order to take advantage of Besler's better left foot on the left side.
Anthems -- The decidedly pro-USA crowd gave a rousing ovation following the national anthem, and then the players, coaches, and fans all stood for a moment of silence to honor the victims of the horrific events last weekend in Orlando that left 49 dead.
Kickoff -- Ecuador with a predictable back-pass to get the game started. The U.S. doesn't waste any time grabbing possession and keeping the visitors at bay in the opening minutes.
3' -- USA corner kick, as some clever play earns Gyassi Zardes a shot that is deflected wide. Bradley's delivery is into the mixer, but goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez makes a simple catch-save in traffic.
13' -- The game has favored the U.S. so far, with Ecuador doing little to trouble the Yanks' defense. The only weak link thus far seems to be Jermaine Jones in the middle of the formation. The Colorado Rapids star has turned the ball over a few times and doesn't look up to the pace of the contest. A bright spot for the USMNT: forward Bobby Wood making life miserable for defender Walter Ayovi along the right wing.
18' -- Geoff Cameron flubs a clearance, and Michael Arroyo pounces on the loose ball in the area. Brad Guzan had good coverage of his goal, as Arroyo blasted his shot over the crossbar. Close call for the USA; they'll need to limit such mistakes in order to keep Ecuador from stealing an easy early goal.
22' -- Goal USA! Wood gets things started, as he takes a pass from Clint Dempsey and carries deep into the box. He pulls the ball back for Jones just outside the area, and the Rapids midfielder chips a perfect ball to Dempsey, who leaps in between two defenders and heads home past Dominguez. The pro-USMNT crowd explodes in applause for their home-town hero, as the Seattle Sounders talisman gives the host a 1-0 lead.
27' -- Dempsey almost doubles the lead off a well-designed set piece. Michael Bradley crushed a free kick cross-field for Alejandro Bedoya, and the FC Nantes midfielder one-touched the pass back into the area. Dempsey met the ball perfectly, but Dominguez snuffed out the Seattle forward's low shot to the far post.
29' -- Brooks makes a huge sliding tackle on a ball into the center of the USA defense. The clearance allows the Yanks to regroup just as Ecuador looked its most dangerous on the evening.
31' -- A little bit of lull for the USMNT at the moment, as the visitors are finding more space on the right side of the field. Besler is holding down the fort, but not convincingly.
33' -- A bit of a scare for U.S. fans, as Brooks needs a break to work out a right arm injury. He took some steps toward the sideline, but then reversed course and stationed himself back in the heart of the USA defense.
36' -- Wood gets behind the defense again, but an excellent tackle from Arturo Mina knocks the ball away from harm. Wood tumbled to the CenturyLink turf (natural grass laid over the artificial surface below), drawing the ire of the American Outlaws amassed in the south stands, but referee Wilmar Roldan of Colombia, after conferring with the assistant on the sideline, signaled for a corner kick.
39' -- The first Boom, Boom, Clap cheer of the evening, something that is a signature of Seattle Sounders games and a tremendous part of the home-field advantage they often enjoy in MLS. The reverberations gave way to chants of "USA!" as the clapping reached a crescendo.
41' -- And now, the "I believe that we will win!" chant gets a run-out by AO. The crowd as a whole has taken a break, especially as the action as cooled down.
42' -- And as if on cue, the USMNT runs the counterattack to perfection, as Dempsey carries the ball down the left wing and squares into the area for a wide-open Bedoya. He elects to try a low shot to the far post -- he had Wood trailing the play in the center of the field -- but it doesn't have enough power to trouble the 'keeper.
44' -- Defensive play of the game so far: Mina dispossesses Bedoya on the left flank, just as it looked like the U.S. was going to threaten the goal again. Mina's slide tackle not only through Bedoya off the ball, but it gave the Ecuadoran space to pop back to his feet and dribble away from danger.
45+' -- Big save Guzan! Ecuador gets loose on a turnover, and Enner Valencia drove convincingly into the area. From a tight angle, with only the 'keeper to beat, the West Ham United defender blasted a shot that Guzan kicked away over the endline. It was the first time all half that Guzan was called to duty, and the Aston Villa goalkeeper did not disappoint.
Halftime -- A good start by the USA, a lull, a goal from the USA, another lull, and a big save in first half stoppage time adds up to a perfect recipe for a 1-0 lead as both team retreat to the locker room for intermission. Jones turned around his slow start and looked more reliable by the end of the half, and the Dempsey/Wood combination up top was giving Ecuador's defense fits.
48' -- Jones with a foul in the corner gives Ecuador a excellent set piece opportunity. The ball is whipped into the six-yard box, headed across goal by Antonio Valencia, but headed wide by Enner Valencia. The second Valencia's touch was not enough to redirect the ball on target. For the USMNT, it was another reminder that Ecuador might strike at any moment.
51' -- And a moment of madness by the USMNT, as Jermaine Jones is shown a straight red card for retaliation on Antonio Valencia after the Ecuadoran chopped down Bedoya along the sideline. It looked like a case of hands-to-face that did in the U.S. midfielder, and it immediately put the Yanks in a precarious position with a one-goal lead to protect. The one saving grace was that Valencia saw a second yellow card as a result of the melee, reducing the Ecuadorans to ten men as well.
59' -- With both teams reduced to ten men, the field has opened up quite a bit, and both sides are trying to use speed to expose the other. Bradley makes a big push for the USA through the center of the field, but Bedoya is unable to keep his shot on target at the top of the area.
61' -- Arroyo takes a crack at goal from 25 yards out, but his effort sails harmlessly over the goal as Guzan makes a token jump in the air. Brooks and Cameron are locking it down as center backs for the USA, but Ecuador is still finding space on the flanks.
64' -- Juan Paredes earns a justified yellow card for a pro-wrestling move on Wood that had the defender leaping over and through the USA forward in an attempt to get the ball.
65' -- Goal USA! Dempsey does yeoman's work in the area on the restart, collecting a poor clearance and squaring the ball across the box for Zardes to sweep home on the goal line. A futile call for offside by Ecuador is rightfully denied by the assistant referee, as the LA Galaxy forward trailed Dempsey on the play.
74' -- Ecuador strikes back! On a free kick opportunity afforded the visitors after a rash challenge earned Bedoya a yellow card, Ecuador executed a perfect play to halve the USMNT lead. Ayovi pulled his restart kick back to the top of the area for the onrushing Arroyo, and the midfielder struck a ball through traffic that eluded Guzan. It was a shot in the arm for Ecuador, and a warning to the USA not to hold their lead lightly.
76' -- Enner Valencia get loose in the box, but he heads wide of the target. Close call for the USA. A minute later, Valencia again has a golden opportunity that flashes wide of the post. The hosts are living dangerously as the match enters the final fifteen minute frame.
83' -- All hands on deck for the USMNT now, as Ecuador is definitely the aggressor late in the match. A nervous crowd at CenturyLink Field does its best to rally the troops, but it will take more than cheers to keep this lead for the U.S.
86' -- Guzan makes a heroic save on a ball that drifts past the Yanks defensive line. He boots the ball away, but that only serves to stave off the Ecuadorans for a few seconds. Fans in the stands are now paying very close attention to the clock.
88' -- Loud "USA!" chants break out as the U.S. prepares to take a free kick. It doesn't amount to much, expect to take time off the clock, but that is exactly what they need right now.
90' -- And then the Ecuador bench erupts in protest at a perceived miscall on a foul committed on Zardes. Water bottles come flying onto the pitch, and referee Roldan has no choice but to eject a few of the visiting coaches.
90+' -- A near own-goal by the U.S., as Brooks almost deflects a ball into his own net. Fortunately, Guzan was able to palm the ball around the post, giving up a corner kick, but preserving the 2-1 lead.
90+' -- Squeaky bum time for all USA supporters, as wave after wave of Ecuador attack is repelled by the Americans. A late corner kick causes some consternation in the box, but the U.S. escapes the equalizer.
Final whistle -- The U.S. bench rushes the field and the men in white rejoice in what will go down as a watershed moment for U.S. Soccer. The Yanks are on to the semifinals of the Copa America, and a likely date with Argentina, the top team in the world.