By Tim Vickery
It looked a long shot a year ago after the team's disastrous start to the current campaign: losing at home to Venezuela followed by crushing defeats at Brazil and Paraguay, after which coach Luis Fernando Suárez stepped down.
Almost a year later, the picture is much brighter. First-place Paraguay aside, everyone is dropping points all over the place, while the Ecuadorians are undefeated in five games under new coach Sixto Vizuete. They may be in seventh place, outside the qualification slots, but they're just four points behind the teams in second place, with 10 rounds left to catch up. So Ecuador is back in the fight, and remember: If it finishes fifth, it goes into a playoff against the fourth-place team from CONCACAF.
When Suárez resigned, it brought an end to the reign of the Medellín gang — a group of coaches from Colombia who made such an important contribution to the Ecuadorian national team. Francisco Maturana took it reasonably close to the 1998 World Cup in France, and two of his former assistants then went much higher. Hernán Darío Gómez was the man behind the side's historic World Cup debut in 2002, and Suárez carried it into the last 16 four years later.
Vizuete was an unorthodox choice to replace Suárez. He had never coached a first-division side and, just months before his appointment, was an unknown face to the local soccer public.
But then he won a title. Vizuete took an Ecuador side to last year's Pan-American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In truth, the soccer tournament was somewhat bizarre. Some countries sent under-17 sides, some under-20, some brought the permitted allocation of overage players and others didn't. It was all a hodgepodge. But it didn't matter. Ecuador won, coming from behind to beat Jamaica in the final, thereby claiming its first international trophy — and launching Vizuete on the path to becoming coach of the senior side.
Not all thought he was fully qualified for the job. PSV midfielder Edison Méndez, Ecuador's outstanding player, initially refused to play under the new regime. He has since relented, though, and after leading the team through five unbeaten rounds, Vizuete is no longer suffering from the same problem of credibility.
Perhaps the moment had come for Ecuador to have a native coach. One of the advantages the foreigners had enjoyed was that it was easier for them to stand outside the rivalry between Ecuador's two main cities, the mountain capital of Quito and the Pacific port of Guayaquil. It could be that Vizuete's lack of track record has made it easier for him to do the same.
"We keep on giving a bigger identity to Ecuadorian football," Vizuete said last week. "We have good organization" — a fair claim after his side had comfortably held free-scoring Uruguay to a goalless draw in Montevideo — "and I'm increasingly convinced that we're difficult to beat."
He also stressed that, "We have the reigning champions of the Copa Libertadores," and his tactical thinking has been adapted to include the key player from the cup winning team of LDU of Quito. Joffre Guerrón has since joined Getafe of Spain, but his storming performances down the right flank gave LDU its cutting edge.
Vizuete has found space for Guerrón in the national team — which almost gives him an embarrassment of riches in midfield. He has the highly talented Méndez and Wigan's Luis Antonio Valencia, plus Everton's athletic Segundo Castillo to hold. If he wants Walter Ayoví or Luis Bolaños to provide balance down the left, it means there's only space for one striker.
Méndez is suspended for next month's home game against Chile — direct rival for a qualification slot — so for that game at least, Vizuete will have few problems selecting a strike duo, the mobile Cristian Benítez buzzing around either Felipe Caicedo or Carlos Tenorio.
It's an impressive squad, which shows just how far Ecuadorian soccer has come in recent years. Vizuete can call on plenty of players with top European experience — many more than any Ecuador coach before him. And he has a group which, in addition to its international pedigree, is also physically strong. As Vizuete said last week, "We were able to hold up Uruguay with order and tactical discipline. We showed that this team has strong personality and can achieve good results anywhere."
But there is one area where Vizuete is less well served than his predecessors. He has to do without Ecuador's all-time top scorer Agustín Delgado, the legendary El Tin, who retired from international soccer after the last World Cup. The gangly Delgado wasn't the most graceful of center forwards, but he was enormously effective. Much better on the ground than he looked, he was superb in the air, and his ability to get on the end of crosses turned many games and won many points for Ecuador.
This is what Vizuete is missing. Ecuador attacks well down the flanks, but in the eight games of the current World Cup qualification campaign, it has yet to score a single goal from a header. For all Caicedo's promise and Tenorio's strength, they lack Delgado's ability to attack crosses and conjure a goal from nothing.
The next game will shed some light on whether or not this is a real weakness. Chile is a relatively short side and has had real problems defending in the air. Can a Delgado-less Ecuador take advantage? If so, three points in Quito on Oct. 12 will confirm Vizuete's men as serious candidates for a spot in the World Cup.
Photo: (from left), Ecuador players Joffre Guerrón, Edison Méndez and Felipe Caicedo. Credit: SI / CNN
contributed by Tim Vickery, Sports Illustrated (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com)