Clint Dempsey has played in three World Cups, beat Spain in the semifinals of a Confederations Cup and participated in a Europe League final. But after scoring one goal and assisting on the second Thursday in a 2-1 win over Ecuador in a Copa America Centenario quarterfinal, Dempsey was ready to place his most recent game alongside the most meaningful of his long soccer career.
“Yeah, it’s up there,” he said. “It’s always special when you’re playing a major competition in your own country. It was huge for us.”
Big enough to send the U.S. on to Final Four of the most important tournament to be played in the U.S. since the 1994 World Cup. Big enough to expose as myth the theory that the U.S. can’t compete with teams such as Ecuador, which is ranked 13th in the world.
And big enough to send the Americans on to the tournament semifinals where they are likely to face top-ranked Argentina, which plays Venezuela in a quarterfinal Saturday.
“Whatever,” Dempsey sniffed at the possibility of facing Lionel Messi and Co. “We’re looking to go all the way. Hopefully, we can.”
Just to get this far the U.S. had to survive a rugged 90 minutes against a team that wouldn’t quit in a game that featured three expulsions, six yellow cards and an empty Ecuador net for the final frantic minutes.
“And we are.”
But they’re moving without midfielders Jermaine Jones and Alejandro Bedoya and forward Bobby Wood.
Jones earned a straight red card — his first in international play — for striking Michael Arroyo in the face during a fracas early in the second half, a skirmish that cost Ecuador the services of Antonio Valencia. Bedoya and Wood, who both picked up cautions earlier in the tournament, received second yellow cards Thursday and also will have to sit out the next game.
The U.S. will have Dempsey, though. And offensively, that’s about all the Americans have needed.
Playing before a raucous crowd of 47,322 in his adopted hometown, Dempsey put the U.S. ahead to stay in the 22nd minute. The sequence started with Wood, who played a fabulous game, sending a pass from the end line back to Jones at the top of the box. Jones then chipped the ball forward for Dempsey, who headed it in from about 10 yards for his third goal of the tournament and 52nd of his national team career.
Dempsey would help double the lead 20 minutes into the second half, drawing two defenders to him near the left post before pushing the ball across the goalmouth to Gyasi Zardes, who tapped it in. It was the third assist of the Centenario for Dempsey, who’s had a hand in six of the eight U.S. scores in the tournament.
“Clint is special, and he showed that tonight,” said U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann, who left Dempsey off his World Cup qualifying roster last fall.
Ecuador, which dom-inated the second half, halved the U.S. lead in the 74th minute when Arroyo took advantage of a defensive mistake to blast a shot past Guzan, ending Guzan’s streak of consecutive shutout minutes at 301. He wouldn’t allow another despite a frenzied Ecuadoran attack that included keeper Alexander Dominguez, who had vacated his net, and the ejection of Ecuador Coach Gustavo Quinteros.
“This is a team that has so much desire to grind it out,” Klinsmann said. “But now they’re more convinced, they’re more confident.
“Copa America, after World Cup [and] together with the Euros is the next level to play out…. Now we get even hungrier for the next step.”
Dempsey, for one, said he isn’t satisfied yet.
“We can keep pushing and do something special here. More special than what we’ve already done,” he said. “There’s a lot of special moments that I’ve been a part of it. Hopefully there’s more.”