SEATTLE — One of the biggest single stories of the U.S.’s run to the Copa América quarterfinals has been coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s willingness to stick with a core group of players from game to game. Klinsmann has used the same starting lineup for three straight matches, the first time the U.S. has done that since 1930.
For a U.S. team that had been lacking a critical mass of core players the last two years, that consistency has been a huge development. But in the wake of DeAndre Yedlin’s red card suspension, Klinsmann will have to make at least one change on Thursday when the U.S. meets Ecuador at CenturyLink Field (9:30 pm ET, FS1, Univision).
The most likely replacement is Michael Orozco, who replaced Yedlin at right back against Paraguay. Even though Orozco has played little for Tijuana’s first team lately, Klinsmann explained here on Wednesday why he has put so much trust in the 30-year-old Orange, Calif., native.
“He’s an absolutely logical inclusion in this roster,” Klinsmann said, “because he’s always been there when we’ve needed Michael. He’s an outstanding individual, very focused. He’s been doing his job down south of the border on the highest level.”
“I went down there myself. I watched Tijuana play Monterrey … He went through a tough stretch there. He didn’t play for the first team for quite a bit, but he played every reserve team game and then played their game prior to their first team. So I saw him play. I saw that he’s in shape, he’s good. He’s not just breaking in right now. Michael has always been there for the team. He has never complained when he has been left out for a World Cup qualifier for a specific game. Every time he came in, he did his job.”
Other possibilities besides Orozco for right back include Geoff Cameron and Fabian Johnson, but those seem unlikely since it would require making more than one change in the lineup. Slotting in Orozco is the logical choice given the personnel Klinsmann has on hand.
Orozco did fine when he replaced Yedlin against Paraguay, but he is a clear downgrade from a speed perspective. That could matter against an Ecuador outfit that has significant speed on the flanks (in Jefferson Montero and Antonio Valencia) and at center forward (in Enner Valencia). Klinsmann had said after Paraguay’s game that he wanted his team to have the “courage” to play a high back line in the knockout rounds, but it made sense to ask if that was still the case given the situation against Ecuador.
“Oh, absolutely,” Klinsmann said. “I think it’s important that you kind of stick to your beliefs in what you want to build. Obviously, you adjust to certain moments in the game. If it requires that we drop a second, we can do that too. I think we can hit our opponents with some counterbreaks the same way they might want do it with us. We are good in that as well.
“But in general I think our back line is doing a tremendous job so far by keeping it higher up to go eye-to-eye with them and continue in that learning curve that we started a while ago. We tell them tomorrow: ‘Be courageous. Go at them. It’s a 90-minute battle.’”
It’s a huge opportunity. The U.S. will be playing before a pro-U.S. crowd here, even though high ticket prices mean that only 43,000 of a 67,000 tickets had been sold as of Wednesday afternoon. But a return to the Copa América semifinals for the first time since 1995 on home soil would give the U.S. the chance to go viral among the U.S. population heading into a likely final four game against Lionel Messi and Argentina next week.
First things first, though. Ecuador can be a dangerous team, but if the U.S. can neutralize La Tri’s speed on the flanks and down the middle, there’s no reason the Americans can’t continue their inspiring resurgence.