USA vs. Ecuador
Friday, Oct. 10, 2014, 7 pm ET
Rentschler Field, East Hartford, Conn.
Watch on ESPN, WatchESPN, UniMas
The US national team are set for a stout opponent and a rare commemoration on Friday night, their first match on home soil since their World Cup campaign ended at the hands of Belgium in Salvador, Brazil on July 1.
Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann scheduled this month's matches with Ecuador and Honduras (Tuesday, 8 pm ET, ESPN/WatchESPN, UniMas) with an eye towards evaluating new, and generally young, talent. But Landon Donovan's decision to retire at the end of the current MLS season prompted U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati to arrange for the USMNT icon to make one final appearance for his country, a testimonial of sorts, and correspondingly the crowds are flocking to East Hartford for this special occasion.
That has set up an intriguing – and thus far rather awkward – situation, given that Klinsmann made Donovan, the leading scorer in both MLS and USMNT history, one of his final cuts from this summer's World Cup roster, and easily his most shocking.
But once Donovan makes his cameo and leaves the international stage for the last time, a moment which is expected to take place before halftime, the spotlight will focus on the newest crop of young US talent, highlighted by the likes of DeAndre Yedlin, Bill Hamid, Luis Gil and unheralded Minnesota United winger Miguel Ibarra.
The USMNT are 2-5-4 all-time against Ecuador, and last met almost exactly three years ago, in the early stages of Klinsmann's tenure in 2011. La Tri defeated an off-color Yanks side 1-0 on that occasion at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, and it's a sign of the USMNT's generational turnover that only four members of the current roster were on hand for that loss.
The US defeated the South American middleweights in 2007, as a Donovan hat trick powered a 3-1 win. And five years prior, Ecuador fell 1-0 in Birmingham, Alabama to a USMNT featuring a young Tim Howard, who earned his first cap and shutout on the day.
Already an odd minglng of USMNT past and future, Friday's encounter has taken on an even stranger tone thanks to several new reminders of the chilly relationship between Donovan and Klinsmann.
Last month Donovan told SI.com that he'd received no contact from Klinsmann with regards to Friday's match, and that the coach's son had never actually apologized for his mocking tweet about Donovan on the day the World Cup roster was released without the national-team icon's name on it.
But this week ESPN pundit Alexi Lalas reported that U.S. Soccer sources had suggested to him that Donovan's version of events was not entirely accurate. And so the nagging issue of their falling-out has rumbled on, despite most everyone's stated interest in celebrating, not carping, as arguably the greatest-ever US player rides into the sunset.
Klinsmann has already announced that the LA Galaxy star will start, wear the captain's armband and make a half-hour appearance before he moves on to join his club mates in Texas for their Sunday clash with FC Dallas. If it indeed plays out that way, there will be rich symbolism on display as Donovan hands the baton to the next generation.
The USMNT will meet an Ecuador team in transition on Friday. Although they were somewhat unfortunate to be eliminated in the group stage at Brazil 2014 with the same 1-1-1 record that saw the US through to the Round of 16, they have since been rocked by a controversy surrounding World Cup bonus payments, which were reportedly not equally split among members of the team.
In the wake of the story, a handful of star players like Antonio Valencia, Felipe Caicedo and Jefferson Montero are no longer part of the team, and the federation hasn't yet picked a permanent replacement for former coach Reinaldo Rueda. Under-20s coach Sixto Vizuete is serving as the interim manager until federation elections are held in January.
The US match is the third under Vizuete, following a 4-0 win over Bolivia and 1-0 loss to Brazil in September. Young players from overseas clubs are finally getting their shot, including 22-year-old RSL star Joao Plata and European-based talents Alex Ibarra and Carlos Gruezo. Plata's prospects for playing time improved after Mexico-based winger Joao Rojas was ruled out of this month's action due to injury.
After Friday's match, Ecuador take on El Salvador on Tuesday at Red Bull Arena, a match that will serve as the send-off match for retired former captain Ivan Hurtado.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
USA – Miguel Ibarra
Klinsmann made major waves across the US soccer scene when he called on Ibarra, the first-ever player from the modern, second-division incarnation of the NASL to join the USMNT. Now it's up to the quick, shifty Californian to prove that he belongs at this level, even if he's unlikely to be given more than a few minutes off the bench as a substitute. His skill and movement have paced Minnesota United's push to the top of the NASL standings, and now he'll hope to showcase them on a much bigger stage.
ECUADOR – Enner Valencia
One of the hotter commodities in world football at the moment, Valencia is Ecuador's undisputed star. He scored all three of La Tri's goals at the World Cup, including a match-winning brace vs. Honduras in Curitiba, helping pave the way for a reported $19.4 million transfer to English Premier League side West Ham. A rags-to-riches success story, “Superman” will surely test the USMNT back line on Friday.
GOALKEEPERS (3): Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS (7): John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Timmy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt), Greg Garza (Club Tijuana), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy), Michael Orozco (Puebla), Tim Ream (Bolton) , DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle Sounders FC)
MIDFIELDERS (5): Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg), Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake), Alfredo Morales (Ingolstadt)
FORWARDS (5): Jozy Altidore (Sunderland), Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), Joe Gyau (Borussia Dortmund II), Miguel Ibarra (Minnesota United), Bobby Wood (1860 Munich)
GOALKEEPERS (3): Alexander Domínguez (LDU de Quito), Máximo Banguera (Barcelona SC), Hamilton Piedra (Dep. Cuenca)
DEFENDERS (8): Walter Ayoví (Pachuca), Luis Cangá (LDU de Quito), Frickson Erazo (Flamengo), Luis León Bermeo (Independiente del Valle), Arturo Mina (Independiente del Valle), Juan Carlos Paredes (Watford), Mario Pineida (Independiente del Valle), Christian Ramírez (Nuremberg)
MIDFIELDERS (8): Segundo Castillo (Al-Hilal), Juan Cazares (Banfield), Jonathan González (Independiente del Valle), Carlos Gruezo (Stuttgart), Álex Ibarra (Vitesse), Christian Noboa (Dynamo Moscow), Junior Sornoza (Independiente del Valle), Jonny Uchuari (LDU de Loja)
FORWARDS (3): Joao Plata (Real Salt Lake), Cristian Penilla (Barcelona SC), Enner Valencia (West Ham)