Ecuador's World Cup adventure came to an early end in Brazil as they finished third in Group E behind France and Switzerland. It was always going to be a tough task to accomplish, but La Tri fought hard throughout.
They were mere seconds away from taking a draw against Switzerland to open play. Then after a much-needed win over Honduras, the plucky Ecuador squad held the vaunted France attack to a scoreless draw, despite having captain Antonio Valencia sent off minutes into the second half.
In the end, four points would've probably been the most optimistic pre-tournament forecast—in fact, it was this writer's prediction in the days leading up to the opener. Against two strong European sides, this team were always third-favorites, but should be proud of the fight they put into their brief stay in Brazil.
While the stay was short, there's a lot we can take away from what we saw from Reinaldo Rueda's charges.
For starters, we got to see the breakthrough of a star in the making. Striker Enner Valencia was probably well-known to fans in Mexico, as his performances for club Pachuca saw him top Liga MX's scoring charts in the recent half-season.
He then entered the tournament having scored goals in friendlies against fellow Cup teams Mexico and England. And yet, it seemed surprising to many that the 25-year-old burst onto the scene in Brazil.
After the tragic passing of Christian Benitez last July, perhaps the biggest question for Ecuador came to be where they'd get a consistent source of goals. Felipe Caicedo was the most "renowned" striker in the corps given his seven goals in qualifying and various experiences in Europe.
However, he hasn't been a noted goalscorer in Europe, with his time at places like Manchester City, Levante and most recently Lokomotiv Moscow not yielding high-caliber results. Luckily for Rueda, a fresher face stepped up to the plate when he was needed.
Valencia bagged all three of Ecuador's goals in the competition—one against Switzerland and a brace against Honduras. In doing so, he not only rocketed up the scoring charts but has seemingly rocketed up the transfer wish lists of many a club.
Anthony Chapman of the Express lists Tottenham, Everton and Newcastle as potential suitors, while Dean Jones at the Mirror believes West Ham are interested. Pachuca vice president Andres Vassi is noted in the former report as telling ESPN in Mexico:
Enner Valencia's value increases every day. We don't know if he will stay, it will be hard given the offers we have received.
The options that a great player at this level gets are to be taken into account. But for now he has to keep doing things right.
No doubt it would hurt us to let Enner Valencia go, but we are realistic about his quality.
Valencia has what it takes to succeed in Europe, so it's not surprising to see teams swarming after his show in Brazil. If he does indeed move to the Premier League, it'd be another big leap forward for Ecuadorian football, much as you could say Antonio Valencia has been.
Speaking of the Ecuador skipper, it's safe to say that the Manchester United player has underwhelmed in recent times for both club and country.
It all started with a rather abysmal showing against England that ended with his red card for throttling Raheem Sterling after a poor tackle that saw the Liverpool youngster dismissed as well. Ecuador would, of course, equalize not long after to regain respectability in the "friendly" fixture in Miami Gardens.
United rewarded his lackluster start to the tournament and disappointing last two seasons at Old Trafford with a new three-year deal on June 21. The winger repaid his club's faith in him by disappearing in the France fixture just four days later.
Not only did he not provide his side with anything going forward, as is his job down the right flank, but he handed France initiative by getting himself sent off minutes into the second half. A horribly mistimed tackle on Lucas Digne led to an easy decision to dismiss Valencia.
This tweet from Squawka just about sums it up:
Squawka Football (@Squawka) June 25, 2014
Of course, his side did manage to hold out for a draw—thanks largely to heroics from goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez—but were dumped out of the tournament. Despite some defensive shakiness throughout, Valencia ought to go down as his team's worst performer in Brazil.
It's tough to point to any specific factor as a cause for Valencia's decline in form. When he was handed the famed No. 7 at United before the 2012-13 season, he failed to reach anywhere close to the standards of George Best, Eric Cantona, David Beckham or Cristiano Ronaldo.
This was coming off a rather impressive prior season, performances impressive enough to warrant his being given that honor after the departure of Michael Owen. Where has it all gone?
Is Valencia going to lose his place in the starting formation? Probably not, given his overall importance to the team as captain and star man. But you have to wonder when it'll sink in that he's not quite the top-level performer we got used to seeing.
Luckily for Ecuador, they do already have a potential replacement waiting in the wings:
Renato Ibarra is absolutely the future for #ECU on the right. Could see him starting as soon as Copa América next year— Alex Gruber (@agruber6) June 25, 2014
Ibarra, who is currently with Dutch club Vitesse, is a dynamic talent on the right. At just 23 years old, he's got plenty of pace to supplement Ecuador's wing-based attacking style. He's generating interest from afar, but as Gerrit van Leeuwen of Sky Sports noted in March, Vitesse are unfazed by the likes of Swansea swarming.
Ibarra saw just under half an hour of action in the tournament, coming in the aftermath of Valencia's dismissal against France. But as you can see in this highlight package (around 2:15 in), he proved his worth quickly by testing Hugo Lloris with a powerful strike.
During a quick counter, the former Nacional (Ecuador) winger cut in on his left foot like Arjen Robben might. His wicked shot forced Lloris into a smart stop against the run of play in what was arguably Ecuador's best chance to score while down a man.
It's worth noting that Antonio Valencia is only 28 years old, so he's still got plenty of top-level football in him. But Ibarra is continually getting better and better and if he secures a move to a bigger club, his profile could grow enough where he could take that spot by the time next year's Copa America rolls around.
Ibarra is but one of the key pieces in what ought to be a solid young attacking core for Ecuador moving forward. He, Enner Valencia and Jefferson Montero—Ibarra's left-wing counterpart and just 24—are all brimming with talent and potential, some of which has already been realized at a high level.
Also capable of being part of the future of the Ecuador setup are Fidel Martinez and Joao Plata. The former, 24, plays for Universidad de Guadalajara in Mexico and made Rueda's 23-man squad for Brazil. He currently boasts eight international caps with a pair of goals.
The 22-year-old Plata has made a solid start to his career in MLS, starting with time at LDU Quito before emerging as a top talent for Real Salt Lake after being traded from Toronto FC. Plata does have one cap already—won in 2011—and is definitely one to watch.
The one issue Ecuador have, as was evidenced at times in Brazil, is in the defensive ranks. Walter Ayovi and Jorge Guagua, two lynchpins of Rueda's back line, are 34 and 32 respectively and might not have much run left in them.
Ayovi in particular may not have much time left on the international scene, and might consider retirement before he suffers a dip in form like Ivan Hurtado did in the later stages of his 167 caps. He told the Ecuador Football Federation (FEF) website (in Spanish) that he didn't know if he had played his last game at the Maracana.
The duo of Frickson Erazo and Juan Carlos Paredes are both just 26, so they have plenty of time to continue growing. However, both need to step up their game if they are to get Ecuador back into contention for a spot in the World Cup.
In the defensive midfield, you have to wonder if Segundo Castillo's injury, suffered in the pre-tournament friendly against Mexico, will drag his career to a halt. Additionally, it is likely that veteran Edison Mendez has played his last game for La Tri, having amassed 111 caps that are second only to Hurtado.
Cristhian Noboa looks likely to be a crucial part of the setup going forward—at just 29, he could find himself captaining the squad if Antonio Valencia is ever dropped and Ayovi leaves. He was among Ecuador's best performers in Brazil, continually breaking up play and acting as a central passing hub.
Ready to partner him is 19-year-old Carlos Gruezo. Already with five caps to his name, Gruezo recently signed for Stuttgart having enjoyed a good start to his career at Guayaquil-based Barcelona. FIFA's profile on the youngster tabs him a "technically adept holding midfielder and a precise passer of the ball."
And of course, Alexander Dominguez looks to have the goalkeeper job locked down.
Maximo Banguera's inconsistency while Dominguez was injured saw him give way to the man known as Dida—after the former AC Milan and Brazil great. And Dominguez rewarded the faith shown in him by putting in a man-of-the-match performance against France.
One key final issue to address is that of the head coach. Rueda's contract is up, and the Colombian is leaving his future in the hands of the FEF, as noted by Ecuadorian publication El Universo (in Spanish). The main task he or his replacement would have: perform well at Copa America en route to the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Qualifying for 2018's World Cup will be more difficult now that Brazil will be back in the mix. But if Ecuador can recapture their almost untouchable home form—dropping just two points in eight home qualifiers—they can set themselves up nicely to make a run at the top four alongside (likely) Brazil, Argentina and Colombia.
Copa America, to be held next summer in Chile and in 2016 in the United States, ought to provide a good measuring stick to see the growth of Ecuador against top opposition.
All in all, there's a lot of positive things you can see in the future of Ecuador. Plenty of top talent, a lot of which is fairly young, and a good collective atmosphere can help this team develop into one that ought to be competing with the best South America has to offer.