SEATTLE - U.S. national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann hailed his side's quarterfinal victory over Ecuador in the Copa America Centenario, noting the growth of this team since its performance at the 2014 World Cup.
The U.S. prevailed 2-1, but was made to sweat out a chaotic second half, one which witnessed the ejections of U.S. midfielder Jermaine Jones and Ecuador's Antonio Valencia. The Americans were up 1-0 at the time through Clint Dempsey's 22nd minute header.
They later added to their lead through Gyasi Zardes' tap-in in the 65th minute. But Michael Arroyo's 74th minute goal from a set piece set up a nervy finish, one that saw Enner Valencia squander some clear chances.
"Obviously we talked before about the magnitude of this game," said Klinsmann during his postgame news conference. "I didn't talk much about Ecuador because I didn't want to make them too big. This team is damn good.
"This team is [second] in World Cup qualifying in South America. It was not by accident that they put us into big difficulties the last 15-20 minutes because this is one of the top teams in the world. But our program is maturing. Out players are maturing. They are learning with every game they can play in this type of an environment."
Klinsmann fully expects to use this win as a platform for bigger things, starting with Tuesday's semifinal against the winner of Argentina and Venezuela.
"Right now this team, I think they're more convinced, more confident," he said. "Confidence you only build over a long period of time, playing big teams and you get some results against big teams. Sometime you will get a loss, like against Brazil, but then you go over a stretch of the last couple of years to Italy, Bosnia, Holland, Mexico -- Azteca, finally -- and that's where you grow."
The match marked the third consecutive game that Dempsey has scored in this tournament, and Klinsmann was full of praise for the U.S. forward. Dempsey now has 52 international goals, five behind all-time leader Landon Donovan.
"Clint is special," said Klinsmann. "And he showed that tonight, he showed it the last couple weeks, he showed it his entire career. So when he was not there for a couple of times -- that's why we wanted to bring some youngsters out there and give them a go -- I always had a great relationship with him, and he was right there where he should be. And this performance tonight from him was unbelievable."
The win did come at a cost for the Americans. In addition to Jones being ejected, Bobby Wood and Alejandro Bedoya picked up yellow cards that will see them suspended for the semifinal. Klinsmann was especially livid about Jones' red card, which he received for pushing an Ecuador player after Bedoya had been taken down by Antonio Valencia.
"Unfortunately we lost Jermaine for that incident which is an absolute joke, because I was right there and the fourth official made that decision, not the referee," said Klinsmann. "The referee didn't see it. He followed the advice of the fourth official out there and it's a disgrace, a decision like that.
"Obviously we're going to miss Ale and we're going to miss Bobby for the semifinal. Not easy, but I think it's a team that has so much desire to grind it out."
With right-back DeAndre Yedlin suspended, Klinsmann opted to switch usual left-back Fabian Johnson to right-back to contend with Ecuadorian speedster Jefferson Montero. He then chose Matt Besler, a center-back by trade, to play left-back. The moves paid off, though the back line received considerable help from wide midfielders Bedoya and Zardes. The U.S. wingers also tested Ecuador at the other end.
"With the two wingers that they have, with [Juan Carlos] Paredes coming from behind and [Antonio] Valencia there, that is difficult to deal with. Then you need the help of your wingers Gyasi and Ale to do a lot of defensive work as well.
"But they are also growing and maturing. They pushed them back, they made them work also defensively and that's another step forward from two years ago. We pushed the game back into the other half, and make them work the same way as well. It's cool, then you have the feeling, 'We can go eye-to-eye here.'