ECUADOR KEEP CLIMBING
This is not your dad's Ecuador. Long one of South America's bit players, La Tri have become a force to be reckoned with and the 2014 World Cup will represent their third tournament appearance in the last 12 years. The big reason for the rise? More and more players are competing at the highest club level overseas. And they will also be counting with special motivation in Brazil: the memory of charismatic striker Christian “Chucho” Benitez who passed away suddenly in July 2013.
WORLD CUP PROSPECTS
The loss of Benitez impacted the squad both emotionally as well as on the field. But the rise in recent months of Pachuca forward Enner Valencia promises to help fill the void. Valencia is in the best form of his career and his speed and finishing complement the power and combativeness of long-time international Felipe Caicedo. But the two forwards will be depending on the playmaking by the wingers -- Manchester United star Antonio Valencia on the right and Jefferson Montero on the left. Ecuador's Achilles' heel is at centerback although the injury to defensive midfielder Segundo Castillo in the lead-up to the World Cup will be hard to replace.
Castillo's replacement will have to rise to the occasion because Ecuadoreans believe they can handle Honduras and Switzerland, which would be enough to see them through to the second round.
GROUP E SCHEDULE
STARS TO WATCH
Felipe Caicedo, FW, Al-Jazira: Ecuador's leading scorer in qualifying with seven goals in nine games. The powerful striker is nicknamed “Rocky” thanks to his love of the boxing blockbusters and has shown suitable tenacity despite bouncing around six European clubs in the past eight years.
Walter Ayovi, DF, Pachuca: La Tri's captain (left) and ironman, who plays left back for his country, was the only player to take part in every minute of the marathon qualifying campaign and has drawn the interest of MLS clubs in recent years. His experience in both of Ecuador's previous World Cups, and his lethal left foot, will be invaluable in Brazil.
Antonio Valencia, MF, Manchester United: He's been at turns dazzling and invisible during his time with the English Premier League giants, especially in the club's turbulent 2013-'14 season. Still, the winger remains capable of game-changing performances at even the highest levels of the game.
Reinaldo Rueda is a veteran tactician who earned solid results with the youth and senior national teams of his native Colombia, then added another impressive line to his resume by leading Honduras to South Africa 2010, their first World Cup in 28 years.
It says much about Ecuador's passion for the game that his achievements with La Tri in the current cycle earned the personal thanks of president Rafael Correa, who praised his team's “unity, solidarity and delivery” on the road to Brazil. Colombians are surely delighted to note that one of their own has been in charge of all three of neighboring Ecuador's World Cup campaigns.
HOW THEY QUALIFIED
WCQ record: 7-5-4 / 20 GF, 16 GA (4th place in South America)
La Tri did not win a single road match during CONMEBOL qualification. But they rode their commanding home-field advantage in Quito, where visitors' lungs gasp some 9,350 feet above sea level (by comparison, lofty Denver sits at 5,280), to a 7-0-1 mark at Estadio Olimpico Atahualpa. Combined with a momentous 1-1 road draw at Uruguay on Sept. 11, that was enough to push them into the continent's final automatic World Cup berth.
WORLD CUP HISTORY
After many years of struggling in search of the world's biggest stage, the 21st century has smiled on Ecuadorian soccer. Back-to-back trips to Japan/Korea 2002 and Germany 2006 were just reward for that long drought and their loyal fans will have a much shorter journey this time around in Brazil.
Something of an Ecuador-to-MLS pipeline has existed over the years: Chivas USA midfielder Oswaldo Minda is on the roster and Chicago Fire striker Juan Luis Anangono was in La Tri's player pool. Meanwhile Joao Plata is a valuable cog at Real Salt Lake.
Looking further back, Eduardo “El Tanque” Hurtado (left) was a dominating presence up front for the LA Galaxy in the early years of MLS before falling on harder times with the MetroStars and New England Revolution … Naturalized Ecuadoran Ariel Graziani was a hot-tempered personality but cold-blooded finisher for the Dallas Burn (now FC Dallas) as well as New England and San Jose from 1999-2002 ...Quinindé-born Víctor Estupiñán became one of a select few foreign professionals to take part in the MLS Combine and SuperDraft in 2011; Chivas USA made him a first-round pick but he left the club after one season in which, contrary to predictions that he would score 30 goals, he scored just one goal in nine appearances … Ecuador's run in the 2006 World Cup was ended by England in the Round of 16, courtesy of a viciously dipping freekick strike by future LA Galaxy recruit David Beckham.