Copa America Centenario, Featured, June 2016

USA vs. Ecuador: A Manageable Quarterfinal in Seattle: The TYAC Preview

Soccer-mad Seattle awaits the Americans in a Copa quarterfinal tonight.

Soccer-mad Seattle awaits the Americans in a Copa quarterfinal tonight.

Neil W. Blackmon and Jon Levy

Following the opening match of the Copa América Centenario, a 2-0 American defeat to Colombia in Santa Clara, California, it was reasonable to ask questions about whether the Yanks would advance to the quarterfinals out of Group A. Winning the group seemed out of the question. Nine furious days on home soil later, soccer had different plans. The US, playing with ten men for nearly half the game, defeated Paraguay 1-0 in Philadelphia. That result, coupled with an improbable upset win by Costa Rica over Colombia, helped the Yanks win the group over Los Cafeteros on goal differential.

Credit the US for their mettle and patented American grit. Credit Jurgen Klinsmann for making the vital tactical adjustment, a half hour into the second group stage match against Costa Rica  back to a 4-4-2, which gave Clint Dempsey the strike partner he needed to thrive and gave the Americans the midfield width and cover they lacked for the tournament’s first 120 minutes. Credit Costa Rica for not mailing it against Colombia, despite being eliminated from the tournament as a whole. Credit Jose Pékerman’s decision to sit regulars knowing the group was still in the balance, a decision rooted in hubris that seems in lockstep with a Colombian footballing history drenched in sadness. Credit all of these things if you want, but whatever you do, appreciate the moment, the US winning a group in a tournament with five of the world’s top ten teams participating; the US doing so after an eighteen month period of significant struggle and (reasonable) questions about the viability of Jurgen Klinsmann’s leadership moving forward.

This success isn’t a mountaintop for Klinsmann- I’ll contend that remains besting longtime nemesis Ghana in the Natal rain at the 2014 World Cup- but it is a magnificent vista. But does it have to be a high-water mark?

In many ways, the quarterfinal the US will play in Thursday night in soccer-mad Seattle (FS1, 8PM) is a bit of “be careful what you wish for.” The thinking for weeks prior to the tournament was that the US would need to win the group to avoid a match with mighty Brazil, and following Brazil’s 7-1 rout of Haiti in the second match of the group stages, pretournament thinking and proceedings seemed in lockstep. Instead, the fall of Colombia to Costa Rica resulted in the US capture of Group A and the fall of Brazil, and subsequently, manager Dunga, aided lightly-regarded Peru capture Group B.

The end result of this bizarre maelstrom of soccer  happenings? The United States get an in-form Ecuador on a day shorter rest after a cross-country flight.

Soccer, like life, isn’t fair.

The longview is more complicated. Winning a group at a tournament of this magnitude is a terrific accomplishment for the United States. It also presents the US with an enormous opportunity Thursday evening, a home game in what should be a rabid environment against an opponent they can absolutely defeat. And even with a loss, the United States players and coaches will likely point to Copa América as a point where they regained confidence as they move toward the autumn, where the nitty-gritty of qualifying for Russia in 2018 awaits. Those are positives and ones in no small part attributable to adjustments made by the under-fire manager, Jurgen Klinsmann.

And yet there is in the same soccer reality space for the idea that the US in 2016 should win two group stage games in an international tournament on home soil, even in a high quality group. This was our take following the Copa draw, despite the difficulty of the group:

Thursday night’s quarterfinal occupies the space between the lines of these realities. The US earned the group win, with guile and smart coaching and grit and John Brooks. Can they capitalize on that win and move forward? Can they win a winnable game on home soil? And if they fail- what of that failure? It will be, after all, a failure (once again?) to reach a goal set by Jurgen Klinsmann, who stated that the team should try to reach the semifinals this summer.

To paraphrase Hamilton, winning the group was easy, USA, winning in the quarterfinals is harder.

The customary TYAC preview then. Usuals. Then particulars.

Series: 14th meeting. Ecuador lead, 5-3-5. The US, who defeated Ecuador 1-0 on a late Darlington Nagbe goal in the second of three pre-Copa friendlies, haven’t US lost to Los Amarillos this millennium. This will be the first meeting between the two teams in a Copa knockout round, and the second meeting between the two nations at a Copa América. Ecuador defeated the US 2-0 at the 1993 Copa América. Despite the limited history in international play, the series doesn’t lack fascinating historical footnotes, at least from the American standpoint.

Tim Howard made his USMNT debut against Ecuador, in 2002. He earned a clean sheet in a US win, with Eddie Lewis scoring the winner. Ecuador was Howard’s US hello but Landon Donovan’s US goodbye. Shunned by Jurgen Klinsmann for the 2014 World Cup, the US hastily put together a friendly following Donovan’s retirement announcement. Donovan was given a hero’s send-off, an awkward handshake from Jurgen Klinsmann, and spent most the second half helping lead cheers with the American Outlaws who made the trek to Hartford, Connecticut. The game was secondary, and the result, a draw, seemed fitting. 

Weather: Upper fifties at kick. Cool, mostly dry. A perfect and probably rainless summer night in Seattle, and as close to Fabian Johnson’s favorite kind of footballing weather as you’ll find this side of autumn in Bavaria. Fabian Johnson Misery Index: 1.

A dangerous Ecuador team ranked in the world top 15 is a brutal reward for winning your group.

A dangerous Ecuador team ranked in the world top 15 is a brutal reward for winning your group.

Neil W Blackmon What to Watch For From Ecuador:

Feels like we just did this. Oh, that’s right. We did.

 But let’s recap, with some notes up top on what we’ve seen at the Copa.

The Bolivian Gustavo Quinteros took over Los Amarillos in 2015 following Ecuador’s exit from the 2014 World Cup after the group stages. Ecuador are one of two South American nations that have never won the Copa América, but despite the warm-up friendly defeat to the Americans, entered the tournament with deserved confidence, as they sit tied above the 2018 CONMEBOL qualifying standings. Of course, Ecuador have looked the part in World Cup qualifying before, finishing 4th and forcing Uruguay to a playoff in 2014, before floundering on the largest stage. And as Brian Straus wrote at SI, while the Ecuadorian performance at this Copa has been terrific, vanquishing the disappointment of last year’s group stage exit in Chile, the history for Los Amarillos at Copa Américas is one littered with disappointment. Quarterfinal opportunities in international tournaments for Ecuador are rare; this match is a benchmark opportunity for Quinteros’s side as well.

Still, this is a very talented Ecuador side, one brimming with confidence and dynamic attacking talent that ought to reach this stage of a competition. Felipe Caicedo, the Real Espanyol striker who has been terrific for Los Amarillos in qualifying, missed the Copa América with a hamstring injury, but Quinteros has plenty of formidable attacking pieces regardless, in Antonio and Enner Valencia, Jefferson Montero, Michael Arroyo and Liga MX star Fidel Martinez.

At this tournament, Quinteros has largely stuck with the forward pairing of Enner Valencia and Miller Bolaños, and he’s been rewarded to the tune of three goals between the two. Jamie Ayovi started when Quinteros shifted to a 4-3-3 against Haiti in the group stage finale—he too rewarded the manager by scoring in the opening half. Bolaños has scored at a prolific clip for La Tri, with 7 goals in only fifteen caps, a statistic that suggests that even after the tragic death of Chucho Benitez, Ecuador are a nation ripe with attacking talent.

Ecuador finished 2015 with five consecutive victories, including a mesmerizing 2-0 victory in Buenos Aires over Argentina. Still, as good as they’ve looked, any evaluation of Ecuador must include a discussion of how much better they play on home soil. Ecuador’s home-field advantage is staggering, particularly at the Estadio Olímpico Atahualpa in Quito which sits over 9,000 feet above sea level. The Ecuadorians are nearly invincible at altitude, and have not lost at home in two World Cup cycles. On the road, even with outstanding results such as the win at Argentina, the Ecuadorians are very mortal, as a humbling loss to Bolivia in last summer’s Copa America proved. That loss came in Valparaiso, elevation 30 feet. The loss to America in the build-up, came on a Texas ride in Frisco, about 700 feet above sea level. Thursday night’s game in Seattle sits at an altitude of 518 feet. Ecuador did dismantle Haiti in the swamps of New Jersey, but even at the 1,150 foot altitude in Glendale, Arizona against Peru, they looked vulnerable, falling behind 2-0 before rallying for a draw.

Nonetheless, the attacking talent at Gustavo Quinteros’s disposal will challenge the US, who will be playing a different back four for the first time this tournament thanks to the suspension of right fullback DeAndre Yedlin. In many ways, Ecuador are a testament to the fact that you can play lovely soccer in the most basic formations. Quinteros has stayed with the 4-4-2 of ages past, occasionally shifting to the 4-4-1-1 Reinaldo Rueda utilized in Brazil. The 4-3-3 deployed against Haiti was a tactical aberration, a change dictated by an opponent happy to sit back and counter more than a system shift.

In either formation, they succeed by being direct, though that in this instance usually involves getting the ball from the flanks in, where technical forwards like Bolaños and Jamie Ayovi are fully capable of spelling Felipe Caicedo, who himself only earned his shot due to the tragic death of  Chucho Benitez. Ecuador also challenge you with physicality and pace, with drifters like Enner Valenica buzzing around the channels and pressuring CB’s who take too long to move the ball or aren’t accurate in distribution or quick enough to set up an offside trap. Enner’s pace is an offside trap buster, but he’s good enough on the ball to challenge a less technical defender 1 v. 1. This is a different type of forward than we’ve seen this tournament and John Brooks, who was steady against Ecuador in the friendly win, needs a repeat performance.

Ecuador are highly reliant on attacking from positions of width, and when they are overwhelmed, it is usually by teams that can move the ball quickly through the center. That ball movement doesn’t have to be through the short passes we saw the US dice Ecuador up with in the second half in Texas three weeks ago; long, precise diagonals from a deep MB 90 will be just fine, and a combination of the two would be best, but it’s the tempo of the play that matters most. This isn’t a US specialty, by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a blueprint.

Likely Ecuador 11.

Likely Ecuador 11.

Ecuador have tough central mids, but no one who wows you. Rostov and former Dynamo Moscow midfielder and World Cup tough guy Christian Noboa is the primary facilitator, whose passing and defense were steady in Brazil is in this team– but he’s nothing more than a ball mover, and if Enner Valencia isn’t in the mood to go deep to receive the ball, Ecuador finds themselves disconnected. Noboa truly is the only fulcrum, by the way, his midfield partner is; the very young FC Dallas man Carlos Gruezo, who is more of a Tie Domi type enforcer than possession hub. Michael Arroyo, who went from uncapped to on the World Cup team, starting against Switzerland in a blink– would seem a possibilty, but he was back on the bench for the  group stages and adds even less in attack.

Ecuador use Noboa to get the ball to one of two wingers, Antonio Valencia of Manchester United and Jeff Montero of Swansea City. Most fans will know what Antonio Valencia offers- an outstanding two-way player who won’t wow you 1 v. 1, instead content to play the right pass, bull a defender over for the ball, cut out a cross and cover his fullback. It’s the reason he’s played at the highest level for as long as has. The more dazzling piece is Montero, who shows little interest in defending but was excellent against the Yanks in the Texas friendly. Montero will take on the Yedlin replacement in the same way he took on Yedlin, which sounds worse than it will be if the US are tactically smart. Michael Orozco can do the job, if his overlap demands are limited- indeed, it was the constant command of Klinsmann for Yedlin to bomb forward that caused some of the young Spurs prospect’s struggles against Montero in Texas. With consistent cover from Alejandro Bedoya, the US can- nay, must- win the battle on this flank.

Defensively, Ecuador were stingier and younger last World Cup cycle. This group continues to be marshaled by Walter Ayovi, who is 36 now but still starting most every game for country. His left foot still works divinely over a set piece, and it says an immense amount about him that he is the player that gets to wear number ten. Frickson Erazo is a set piece monster with Mineiro, who scored against Argentina last autumn. He’s the best player the side have in the air in the absence of Caicedo, but he only started once in the group stage, with Quinteros preferring the pairing of Gabriel Achilier the incumbent at right CB, and youngster Arturo Mina, both based in Ecuador. Longtime fullback Juan Carlos Paredes, who starred in Ecuador’s win over Honduras at the 2014 World Cup, is the right back, and is a capable two-way player, and he can give support and whip in a cross, but he won’t play nearly as high up the pitch as the suicidal Ayovi.

The goalkeeper is Esteban Dreer, who stood on his head against Brazil, but isn’t the most persuasive player.

Neil W Blackmon What to Watch For From The United States:

The US, playing in front of a passionate Seattle crowd, full of confidence for the first time in two years, expecting to win. A side that goes for it early.

One of the most satisfying things about the Yanks victory over Paraguay in Philadelphia was the Americans willingness to pressure the ball with multiple players early in the game and play a high line and fast tempo. The US did a wonderful job quickly cycling the ball to wide spaces, where they utilized the speed of Gyasi Zardes and DeAndre Yedlin in particular to stretch the Paraguay defense. By moving the line of confrontation forward and using their speed on the wings, they were able to dictate a game Paraguay wanted to be a bare-knuckle street fight. There was some of the latter, but the US commitment to a smart tactical strategy won the day:

Clint Dempsey’s second goal of the competition gives him 11 of the last 22 American goals scored in international tournament play-a staggering number and an idea why Jurgen Klinsmann was determined to find a formation that suited his older star than replace him altogether- a move called for by many in the media and fanbase (including TYAC) prior to the tournament.

The US have gotten another big tournament from Clint Dempsey, who tonight gets a chance to shine in front of a home crowd in Seattle.

The US have gotten another big tournament from Clint Dempsey, who tonight gets a chance to shine in front of a home crowd in Seattle.

We were wrong, and credit Jurgen Klinsmann for the tactical adjustments and commitment. Clint Dempsey is the most imaginative scorer the US have ever produced, and he continues to be Americans most lethal option at this level into his 30s.  The time frame for Dempsey is closing, but it is reasonable to expect him to contribute deeper into this cycle and have a role of some sort in Russia 2018 should the Americans qualify.

The US will face Ecuador’s simplistic 4-4-2 Thursday night without the benefit of DeAndre Yedlin, who sits after an unfortunate sequence of events led to a red card against Paraguay. As noted above, his absence in truth might not be the worst thing, given his struggles against Jefferson Montero in the warm-up friendly. But calls to invert Fabian Johnson and start Edgar Castillo at left back against Manchester United Antonio Valencia miss the mark. Johnson is already playing out of position at left back- why complicate the problem by putting him in spot where when he makes one of his patented cuts he is cutting in on his less-favored foot? And history is instructive that Klinsmann won’t go this route: he trusts Michael Orozco and for all the complaints about the Liga MX defender, Orozco has put in some good performances in a US shirt, particularly against incutting wingers who play for Mexico.  So it will be Orozco, almost certainly, with Alejandro Bedoya, the industrious student of the game who has been excellent at this Copa, covering bravely.

That flank- Orozco and Bedoya vs. Ayovi and Montero—might decide who wins the day.  And it’s not the worst matchup: Ayovi and Montero are at their best when they overlap and interact—they can hurt you one v one of course- but playing off each other the US will get stretched and with Enner Valencia buzzing around the channels, it is a devastating trifecta. More on Bedoya and the game he’ll need to have below.

In the center, Michael Bradley’s tournament has improved greatly since the opening match against Colombia. He was tremendous in the scrum against Paraguay, directing traffic, helping on forwards and it was his outlet pass that set up Zardes on the American goal. He’ll shield the US defense again Thursday night. Bradley’s deeper role not only makes him more comfortable, it untethers Jermaine Jones, who can maraud and get forward and can pressure opposing midfielders and limit space. He’ll be asked to do that by Klinsmann Thursday evening, and his ability to make life difficult on Christian Noboa could force the Ecuadorians to utilize Gruezo as the distribution outlet. Accomplish that goal, and the US are in business.

Finally, there has been some discussion about whether Jurgen Klinsmann may opt for the 4-3-3 again in this game, in an effort to generate early pressure and find an early goal. I don’t think that’s necessary, and in fact, it could do the US a disservice.

One of the reasons the Americans were so successful moving the ball against La Tri in the second half of the Texas friendly was that Quinteros’s side applied only token pressure in a friendly in the Texas heat. This made Nagbe look like the new American Jesus and sent American fans into raptures. Nagbe is good, but Ecuador will pressure the ball plenty Thursday night and Michael Bradley in particular won’t/shouldn’t have as much time on the ball to help the US build-up. Disconnect Michael Bradley from Jermaine Jones and the US become disjointed, turnover prone and beatable. The 4-4-2 gives the midfield the wider base it needs to defend in transition against speedy wings and should provide Michael with needed distribution outlets better than a 4-3-3. That’s especially true because if Ecuador pressure deeper, the US forwards will have to drop deeper to make themselves available, which changes the formation anyway. So just stick with what works. Especially when giving Clint Dempsey a strike partner is almost a requirement at this stage.  

Finally, a word on penalties, because this is a Copa América, so we don’t get extra time. It’s go directly to penalties without collecting 200 dollars. That means that Jurgen Klinsmann needs to be judicious, if possible, with substitutions in a tight game. But it also means there’s an opening for either a Christian Pulisic (too young to know the pressure or the difference) or Chris Wondolowski (the ultimate redemption story?) to be a late substitute. And if we had to pick five at TYAC to take the penalties, we’re going, in this order: 1) Jones 2) Bradley 3) Dempsey (he’s not a great penalty taker but it is so much about mentality, isn’t it?) 4) Bedoya 5) Wood. 

Enner Valencia is having another big international tournament. He'll pose massive problems tonight.

Enner Valencia is having another big international tournament. He’ll pose massive problems tonight.

Jon Levy on the Ecuadorian Player To Watch: Enner Valencia (West Ham United)

Enner’s highlight reel moments versus  Haiti are essentially tutorials for how to play high-pressure center forward (West Ham’s board is likely sending the YouTube link around Europe as I type). What didn’t he do?

Hockey fans talk about the game in which Mario Lemieux scored all five varieties of goal. And certain soccer fans are always on the lookout for the perfect hat trick: one with the left, one with the right, and one with the head. Well Enner only scored one goal against lowly Haiti, but he had a hand in all four of Ecuador’s tallies. Run down his list of achievements in that dominant performance, you say? Don’t mind if I do.

Goal 1: Enner picks up the ball in space and beats the keeper. Simples.

Goal 2: Diminutive Enner out-muscles a Haitian defender for the ball, takes it for a run at the keeper then lays off to his compatriot for an easy goal.

Goal 3: A high-pressing Enner intercepts the ball (more like takes it off a Haitian defender’s foot), and starts a beautiful counterattack that leads to a goal three seconds later. Oh, and he uses those three seconds to get into the box, ultimately serving as an effective decoy on Noboa’s goal. No assist for Enner on this one, but y’know, STAY WOKE!

Goal 4: As if he hadn’t terrorized our CONCACAF kin enough, Enner finds the inch-perfect patch of grass to spring the offside trap. He’s all by himself like the hidden track on Green Day’s Dookie album, that is, until he isn’t. Another easy layoff to a teammate after the keeper commits himself. Goal.

On a not quite unrelated note, I think Enner’s been watching 1990’s NCAA football highlights of Nebraska running the option.

So what sort of player rating should Enner get for a match like that? I’ll defer to our buddy Billy Bob from Varsity Blues.

But there’s a nice silver lining here for the US. Enner Valencia, Antonio Valencia, and the rest of Ecuador are essentially coming off their version of the Yanks’ pre-Copa match with Bolivia. The acres of space that made Enner look like Messi against Haiti do not constitute “real life.” And just as the US was dealt a painful post-Bolivia reality check in the early going against Colombia, Ecuador could be primed for an unnerving start if Bradley and the back four can make Enner and his friends play in a phone booth.

But don’t get overly confident.

While Enner Valencia is no Messi, he’s a bona fide star. He actually beats tight, quality defense as often as he’s frustrated by it. I could point to any number of Ecuador matches versus good opposition to support my point, but let’s keep this big tournament centric. He scored all three of Ecuador’s goals in the 2014 World Cup, then added two in last summer’s Copa America, and of course he scored against Centenario Group B winners Peru last week.

As a West Ham supporter, I feel uniquely authorized to provide full context on this talented, but often frustrating, player.

Enner Valencia has as complete a skill set as you can ask for out of a striker of his size. He’s got fox like instincts in the box, but he can also launch venomous shots from beyond 18 yards. He’s speedy, can run at defenders with the ball at his feet, and he possesses strength that belies his size. He knows where to pass to build an attack, and he’s got a high jump and skill with his head for when the ball comes back his way. There’s a reason Jose Mourinho was willing to pay a rumored £20 million to £30 million to bring Enner to Chelsea last summer.

But when Valencia doesn’t find success quickly he often becomes discouraged or frustrated, and fades from the game rather than putting his head down and working his way back into it, a problem that seems absurd given how simple his formula for getting back on track can be. Press high, pressure defenders, and buzz around the attacking zone tirelessly probing for cracks. When he’s doing that he’s almost always dangerous. But that tireless offensive work ethic always eventually escapes Enner at West Ham. And the striker generally responds to big-time adversity off the field about as well as he does on it. So a benching will lead to a bust up with the manager which leads to Enner Wants Out Part 5: This Time He’s Maybe Serious. 

So, while I doubt the US will force Valencia into a funk that gets him pulled from the match, it’s important to force him over that metaphorical line. On one side, he’s thriving under the challenge of fencing with rightfully confident American defenders. On the other, he’s complaining to the refs, running three quarter speed, and hoping the ball comes his way rather than actively making himself available for a pass. Give me the latter Enner Valencia on Thursday night and I’ll give the US a good chance at reaching the semifinal.

Alejandro Bedoya is having a tremendous Copa America. He'll be asked to shoulder a large load tonight.

Alejandro Bedoya is having a tremendous Copa America. He’ll be asked to shoulder a large load tonight.

Jon Levy on the American Player To Watch: Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes)

America’s largely unsung midfield hero is a Klinsmann favorite, and regardless of how you feel about the national team manager, Bedoya should be one of your favorites too. He’s having his moment in this tournament, just not in the way we all would’ve expected even a year ago. We’ll get to his game in a second. But first, why and how has Bedoya become a poster boy for Jurgen’s USMNT?

Well, he’s a Colombian American kid from South Florida (note: real South Florida, Broward, west Florida never counts), who touts Euro-izing America’s youth development system, and challenging yourself at the highest level. He practices what he preaches on the latter point, moving from Sweden to Scotland to Sweden to French Ligue 1 within the past five years. It’s like Jurgen created a player to spout his ethos on Twitter (@AleBedoya17).

And the parts of said ethos that Bedoya embraces shouldn’t be as controversial as they sometimes seem, but as Americans it’s often hard for us to separate a man’s ideas from his performance. Some factors and results are causal, others mutually exclusive. Do I agree that the youth system still has catching up to do, that we should recruit dual nationals, and that players generally improve by playing against stronger opposition? Absolutely. Do I think Jurgen Klinsmann should have been fired on the night of October 10th, 2015. For sure. See! Now allow me to pull out of this nosedive and address the Copa America play of All Action Alejandro.

All Action Alejandro, or Triple A if you’re so inclined, gets a new TYAC (nickname to go with a new role, and the style of play he’s been cultivating for club and country. Oh we delighted at the inclusion of a young attacking winger six years ago, dubbing the promising player Ale-Alejandro… Bedoya (yeah you gotta say it with the pause). A Lady Gaga inspired nickname for an exciting national team prospect. And he’s delivered goals and assists for the Yanks in spots over the years, but he’s never consistently been a first eleven guy until now. And he got here by growing his game in a slightly unlikely direction.

Young Bedoya certainly had room to grow, and logically many of us thought he’d do so by refining that attacking wide man skill set. So maybe he’d turn himself into Graham Zusi with more speed. For those who dared to dream a little larger, he could work on his handles and delivery and rival Fabian Johnson for most dangerous American winger. And if you picked him up for your club in career/dynasty mode on whatever videogame we were all on in 2010 or 2011, “we’re talkin’ ’bout the American Cuadrado here!” But Alejandro Bedoya is a realist and a competitor, and whether it was down to Jurgen, a club manager, or his own realization, that’s not the path he traveled.

Instead of developing into a true wing attacker, Bedoya developed the more pragmatic sides of his game. Positioning. Tackling. Keeping possession. Mix those in a pot with the gut-busting effort he’s been putting in this tournament and you’ve got Triple A, or All Action Alejandro if you’re not into the whole brevity thing. A central midfielder who’s comfortable sliding out to the wing. Or a box-to-box winger who plays like a center mid. He’s both, and he’s been pulling the strings behind the scenes in open sight, helping his teammates author more memorable moments. And for all those who criticize what he offers getting forward, he sure does get into great positions (bottom right)…

Ale was a big part of the first half possession/attack against his other country, Colombia, in a losing effort. Then he was all over the field against Costa Rica, coolly cutting out attacks, and making safe passes to find Yanks in enough space to continue the offensive buildup. Magnify that assessment for the Paraguay match, where he was even better, doing his job, and covering defensively for (both) the fullbacks who had off nights.

So why are some still so tepid on Bedoya?

That question has a couple answers, but they’re both easy to understand. What he’s doing isn’t pretty, and not just because it’s a lot of routinely overlooked dirty work. Alejandro has been good with the ball when he’s had it, but, to use an NBA term, he’s the least ball dominant dude in this midfield. It’s not for lack of skill either. Michael Bradley’s game requires him to have the ball at his feet a lot. That’s cool; I want that guy sitting deep and pulling strings. And I want Jermaine Jones running at dudes, watching defense movement, and finding space. Even Gyasi Zardes needs the ball to excel. If he’s not dribbling at speed toward the opposing 18 yard box, or cruising down the flank waiting for the ball to drop it back, why is he even on the field? But Bedoya doesn’t need the ball as much as those guys do to be effective in his current role for the US. He’s tidy, efficient, and sneakily influential.

But what of the other reason for some of this media and fan ambivalence on Bedoya?

Some can’t help but long for Ale-Alejandro to make his mark in the attacking third. And who can blame them? After all, they’re not necessarily living in some fantasy future concocted around a player we once thought would thrill us regularly. If we use his career in France as a guide we’ll note that he plays a box-to-box wing or central role over there, but by now we’re all used to watching that once every three weeks highlight where he flashes sublime offensive skill. Sometimes it’s an assist, sometimes it’s a golazo, but that highlight goes viral in US Soccer circles, and you can set your watch by it.

“We about due for a new Bedoya Nantes screamer?”

“Naw, next week I think. Wait for it. It’ll come.”

But the thing is, we’re absolutely due for one of those moments.

Right. About. Now.

And if he pulls one out against Ecuador, we have a merged nickname situation on our hands here at the home offices. That’s a risk we’re willing to take. We’ll all hail All Action Ale-Alejandro… Bedoya.


Prediction: USA 2-1 Ecuador

Big Game Jermaine scores the winner, and hopefully we get some of that Nantes Bedoya magic as well. Onto the semifinal I guess?!

Enjoy the match, and Go USA!

Jon Levy and Neil W. Blackmon co-founded The Yanks Are Coming. Follow them on Twitter @TYAC_Jon and @nwblackmon.

Neil W. Blackmon

  • Chazcar2

    Fabian Johnson’s stronger foot is his right.

    • Daniel Seco

      He likes to cut in from the left to get onto that foot, though.

    • True– corrected to note that Johnson prefers to incut from the left onto his good foot. Wouldn’t be able to do that inverted.

      • Chazcar2

        He is very good with his left. If you look at his goal in the friendly warm ups ahead of the world cup vs Turkey he cuts in from the right back position and takes the shot on the volley with his left.

        Anyway, I understand your line of thinking about keeping him at left-back. I would only consider that he hasn’t really looked great there, maybe switching him would makes sense. Then the question is castillo or Besler? Given how large A. Valencia is I would almost prefer Besler… but nothing is a great choice.

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