Three things we learned from USA 2-1 Ecuador — on to the semis!

Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
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The U.S. national team advanced to the semifinals of the 2016 Copa America Centenario with a 2-1 victory over Ecuador Thursday night in Seattle, Wash. Here’s what we learned about Jurgen Klinsmann’s USMNT…

[ MORE: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | Copa America 2016 ]

The demise of Clint Dempsey was premature

Following the USMNT’s tournament-opening loss to Colombia, I wrote a bit about Klinsmann’s Dempsey problem — long story short: he doesn’t fit the system Klinsmann wants to play, thus it might have been time to move on — so credit to Klinsmann for tailoring his tactics to one of the best American players ever and putting him in a position to contribute in a very big way.

By switching back to a quasi-4-4-2 midway through the first half against Costa Rica, Dempsey has been paired just underneath a lead striker, Bobby Wood, for the better part of three games now. In their nearly 250 minutes together, Dempsey and Wood have score three goals between, while the USMNT has scored six times in total.

On Thursday, the duo, along with the late-arriving Jermaine Jones, played equally vital roles in the build-up to the game’s opening goal (WATCH HERE), unleashing a facet of the USMNT attack that signaled they’re at their best on that end of the field — Wood for his penetration to the end line, hold-up play and space created; Dempsey for his pinpoint header back across the face of goal.

Dempsey remains the spiritual soul — a tenacious, ultimate grinder full of attitude and an annoying (to play against) downright refusal to ever (ever) quit — and it’s that kind of mentality presently running through this team that has propelled them past Paraguay and Ecuador in back-to-back 50-50 games the last two times out.

(Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

[ FULL RECAP: USA 2-1 Ecuador | Player ratings ]

Backline deployment ultimately the right call by Klinsmann

On paper, the thought of Matt Besler playing left back and trying to defend against Antonio Valencia way out on the wing is a terrifying one for USMNT fans. In practice Thursday night, it worked quite well for the USMNT, mostly because Klinsmann didn’t leave Besler stranded all the way out on the sideline without a safety net the way he would have done with Fabian Johnson, a natural full back, playing the position.

Instead, Besler sat extremely narrow for a full back and Alejandro Bedoya, playing essentially as a left midfielder on the night, did his best — which was quite good — to keep Valencia pinned deep and provide defensive cover from the front. On the whole, Besler only face Valencia in a true one-on-one situation on one or two occasions before the electric winger was sent off in the 52nd minute. That’s a simple but very wise tactical adjustment by Klinsmann.

Beyond that, keeping the center back duo of Geoff Cameron and John Brooks, who’ve now played 450 straight minutes in lockstep, together. We’ve talked about this a handful of times during this tournament already, but Brooks is breaking out and becoming a downright star. At this point, comfortably positioned as the USMNT’s starting left-sided center back, he’s truly undroppable and an irreplaceable figure. Think back to last summer’s Gold Cup, then read that sentence again. He’s everything you want at the position: size, strength, speed, ability to read the game, and a competent distributor. Oh, what a difference 12 months’ time makes.

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Watching/supporting the national team can be fun again

I’ll be the first to hold my hand up and admit it: I was on the edge of my seat all game long, and the USMNT was unrecognizably fun to watch on Thursday. The true irony is, of course, that Klinsmann had to just about become Bob Bradley, the man he replaced as USMNT boss, and embrace the Americans’ grind-it-out, rigid style of soccer to become watchable.

The fact of the matter is this: Copa America is a very big deal for this team — it’s the biggest deal until we reach the summer of 2018 in Russia — and Klinsmann has managed to meld entertainment, results and a handful of blossoming young players into into a functional group that makes me proud to root for the USMNT once again.

Klinsmann wanted semifinals. Well, he got semifinals. Now, it’s (probably) Lionel Messi and Argentina waiting on the other side. They’ll be without Jermaine Jones, Bobby Wood and Alejandro Bedoya (suspensions), which is a bitter, potentially crippling blow. We’ll worry about that sometime tomorrow morning, though, because tonight the positives hugely outweigh the negatives and we all deserve to enjoy that until the morning (at least).