The major stars of the Copa America Centenario put on word-class performances during the tournament’s quarterfinal stage, with the household names each attempting to outdo one another in an effort to lift their respective nations to the semifinals.
With the original 16 team field sliced in half to eight, the first knockout round featured a mix of surprise participants such as Venezuela alongside the pre-tournament favorites like Argentina and the defending champions Chile.
The quarterfinal action began last Thursday night in Seattle, Washington where the United States, winners of Group A, faced Group B runners-up Ecuador.
Coming off two straight victories to close group-stage play, the U.S. were without DeAndre Yedlin for the match after the Sunderland defender was red-carded in the 1-0 win over Paraguay. His absence may have contributed to what was a rocky start for the Americans as Ecuador controlled the game’s opening minutes.
However, barring the required change to account for Yedlin, it was another consistent starting 11 named by manager Jurgen Klinsmann, and on 22 minutes that consistency was rewarded with an opening goal from the Americans.
It was a blend of new and old American talent that produced the goal, with Bobby Wood dribbling well into the Ecuadorian penalty box before holding the ball well and passing out to Jermaine Jones. Jones then delivered a cross at a good height towards the penalty spot, where Clint Dempsey rose and headed the ball perfectly into the top right corner of the net, scoring his 52nd international goal.
The quarterfinal took a strange turn just seven minutes after halftime, when both teams were reduced to 10 men. A rash kick on Alejandro Bedoya earned Antonio Valencia his second yellow card for Ecuador, while in the fracas that followed that incident, Jones picked up a very harsh straight red card for a light slap delivered to the face of an Ecuadorian player.
With the game slightly more stretched, the U.S. were able to increase their lead to 2-0 in the 65th minute, when Gyasi Zardes tapped in a Dempsey pass across the goal mouth to provide Klinsmann’s side with a bit of insurance. That insurance would prove to be necessary as well with Ecuador managing to pull a goal back before the night was over.
Two players from Liga MX combined for the Ecuadorian goal on 74 minutes, with Club America’s Michael Arroyo receiving a pass at the top of the 18-yard box from Monterrey’s Walter Ayoví and firing past Brad Guzan.
While the final 16 minutes of the match were plenty nervy for the Americans, Guzan made the necessary saves and the United States secured their first Copa America semifinal since 1995 with the 2-1 win.
There was decidedly less action over the course of 90 minutes in East Rutherford, New Jersey on Friday evening when Group B winners Peru clashed with Colombia out of Group A.
Peru had advancing to the quarterfinals at the expense of Group B favorites Brazil, with Raúl Ruidíaz scoring a controversial handball goal to send Los Incas through with a 1-0 win.
But the Peruvians were under siege for the majority of the match at MetLife Stadium, with Colombia on the attack right from the kickoff. James Rodriguez should have given Colombia the lead in the 22nd minute when his curling shot evaded goalkeeper Pedro Gallese, but the ball struck the inside of the post and went back into play.
Colombia struck the base of the post again in the 74th minute as they pushed for a winner before Peru had several good chances in stoppage time, with a spectacular save by David Ospina denying Christian Ramos on a powerful header. The save ensured that the match would finish regulation scoreless, and the winner would be determined by penalty kicks.
Each side’s first two penalty takers converted their chances with ease as Rodriguez and Cuadrado scored for Colombia and Ruidiaz and Renato Tapia did the same for Peru. It was on the third round of penalties that Peru cracked though, as Ospina dove to his left and stopped the effort from Renzo Revoredo.
The game was officially given to Colombia when Chrisitan Cueva skied Peru’s next penalty over the bar and into the New Jersey night, sending Los Cafeteros into the quarterfinals.
The United States learned their opponent for the semifinals early Saturday evening when Argentina and Venezuela played at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The two sides represented polar opposites of the Copa America Centenario quarterfinal landscape, with Argentina the top team in the FIFA World Rankings and Venezuela currently last in CONMEBOL qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
La Albiceleste took control of the match early on, with Lionel Messi making his first start of the tournament for Gerardo Martino’s side. It was Messi who created Argentina’s first chance and goal in only the eighth minute, when a precise through ball by Messi was one-timed into the net by a stretching Gonzalo Higuain to put Argentina up 1-0.
Higuain was gifted his and Argentina’s second goal of the match just before the half-hour mark, when a terrible back pass by Venezuela’s Arquímedes Figuera played the Napoli striker in on goal. Higuain then rounded goalkeeper Dani Hernandez easily to finish into an empty net and put Argentina firmly in control.
Venezuela applied plenty of pressure in the final minutes of the first half though and looked poised for an equalizer in the 44th minute when they were awarded a penalty kick after a poor tackle from Argentinian goalkeeper Sergio Romero. But Luis Seijas could only achieve infamy with his poor penalty kick, as his attempted “panenka” was easily caught by Romero, who had remained standing in the middle of the goal instead of diving to either side. This allowed the score to remain 2-0 in Argentina’s favor at halftime.
Messi finished Venezuela off in the 60th minute with a lovely give-and-go move with Nicolas Gaitan that resulted in the Barcelona forward splitting the legs of Hernandez with the shot to make it 3-0.
A glancing header from West Bromwich Albion’s Salomon Rondon pulled one back for Venezuela in the 70th minute, but Tottenham Hotspur’s Erik Lamela scored from a Messi assist just one minute later to restore the three goal lead. At 4-1, Argentina was able to comfortably see out the victory and set up a date with the United States in the semifinals on Tuesday night in Houston.
The final quarterfinal at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California was projected to be the pick of the bunch as Mexico faced Chile with the winner set to play Colombia in the semifinals.
Unbeaten in their last 22 matches, Mexico entered their quarterfinal full of optimism after two wins and a draw in group-stage play, while Chile rounded into form well with wins over Bolivia and Panama after dropping their opening fixture to Argentina.
Playing a high pressing, high energy game, it was Chile who asserted themselves immediately in the match as they went in front through Edson Puch after 16 minutes. The Necaxa player had the ball fall directly to his feet from a Guillermo Ochoa save, and Puch was able to fire into the open part of the net for the Chilean goal.
The score became 2-0 just before halftime when Eduardo Vargas score his first of what would be four goals in the match. Vargas controlled an incisive pass from Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez before smashing past Ochoa to extend the lead to two before halftime.
The result was sealed for La Roja four minutes after halftime when Sanchez turned the scorer as he finished past two Mexican defenders on the goal line after good build-up play between himself and Arturo Vidal. Vidal, who picked up a yellow card in the match, is set to be suspended for the semifinals for Chile due to yellow card accumulation.
Vargas would score two more goals in the 52nd and 57th minutes to complete his hat-trick, the first being a breakaway shot slotted past Ochoa while the second was a simple rebound fired into the roof of the net.
At 5-0, many of the Mexican fans in attendance began to stream out of the stadium, but for those who stayed the pain would only get worse as Chile went on to win the match 7-0. Goal six came courtesy of Vargas again, as the TSG 1899 Hoffenheim player capitalized on lazy and sloppy defending by Miguel Layun to score a rebound from the narrowest of angles into an again empty net.
The seventh goal was scored by Puch, who completed his brace in just his 11th appearance for Chile in style with a lovely chip over and on-rushing Ochoa. While the trip to the semifinals was smooth sailing for the Chileans, the devastating loss leaves questions of Mexican manager Juan Carlos Osorio, as Mexico had not conceded seven goals in a match in 88 years.
The quarterfinal results leave the United States, Argentina, Colombia and Chile as the four sides still standing at the Copa America Centenario.
A limited U.S. side without the services of suspended players Bobby Wood, Jermaine Jones and Alejandro Bedoya will play Argentina in the Tuesday night semifinal in Houston while Chile and Colombia will play on Wednesday night in Chicago, with Chile’s Arturo Vidal the only notable exclusion.