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Young Ecuador squad’s World Cup hopes hang on Enner Valencia

Ecuador were South America’s Under-20 champions in 2019, and then came third in the World Cup at that level. Some of those players have been promoted to the senior side that will represent Ecuador at the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Others on their way to Qatar are even younger — such as Moises Caicedo, the heartbeat of the midfield, first-choice centre-back Piero Hincapie and likely reserve Jeremy Sarmiento.

Ecuador are a young side. Coach Gustavo Alfaro has shown an admirable faith in the products of the country’s youth development, consistently adopting a line that if they are good enough they are old enough. The senior World Cup is going to be something new for these players, something much bigger than they have ever been part of before — especially as Ecuador get the tournament underway on Sunday against the hosts.

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The experienced players also have a vital role to play in this process. There are just three remaining players from the squad that finished third in Group E at Brazil 2014, Ecuador’s last World Cup appearance. One is gangling goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez. There is also holding midfielder Carlos Gruezo who, as a result of injuries, was pitched into Ecuador’s opening game as a teenager and found it hard to step up to the level. And then there is team captain Enner Valencia, the former Premier League striker, who scored all three of Ecuador’s goals in the competition.

Valencia, then, is the team’s one proven outfield World Cup performer. He is also Ecuador’s all-time top scorer with 35 goals — a magnificent achievement for a player who initially was more of a winger or even a wing-back than a goal scorer.

A feature of Ecuadorian football in recent years has been the preponderance of fast, physically strong players operating down the flanks. Valencia fits this bill, as does Gonzalo Plata in Alfaro’s side. In the case of Valencia, it was the tragic and premature death of Christian Benitez in 2013 that brought about the change in position. Then-coach Renaldo Rueda had a hunch that Valencia’s attributes — especially in the air — would work well closer to goal, and the switch was an immediate success. His Brazil 2014 displays were part of a run in which he scored in nine of 11 games, grabbing two goals in a couple of the matches.

The goals have often come in spurts, befitting of an uneven career. He enjoyed wonderful times and disappointing spells in Mexico. Valencia was not a disaster in the Premier League with West Ham and Everton, but he was unable to establish himself as an outstanding striker. Things have gone better with Fenerbahce — especially now, as he heads to Qatar as the Turkish Super Lig’s top goal scorer.

Ecuador will hope that Valencia is on one of his productive runs, and that he can carry that form into the World Cup — but he’s had many ups and downs with the national team. Late in 2019, he equalled 2002 hero Agustin Delgado as Ecuador’s all-time top scorer. There then followed 11 games without a goal until he finally got himself in front. And accompanied by plenty of criticism from the local press and public, he’s only had one goal — and a missed penalty — in the last eight Ecuador games.

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The problem is that Valencia’s dry spell has coincided with a collective drought for Ecuador.

On Saturday, Ecuador were held to a goalless draw by Iraq. In itself, this is hardly a disaster. Coach Alfaro was not even especially keen to play the match — he was still missing several players, including Valencia, and the priority was to avoid injuries — but it was a third consecutive game without a goal. Since the end of the qualifiers, Ecuador have kept six straight clean sheets. But they have only scored two goals — a clear cause for concern as they build towards the biggest challenge of their lives.

The team’s centre-forward is the rangy Michael Estrada, whose form was much better in the first half of qualifying than the second. Valencia is most often used cutting in from the left. Brighton’s attacking full-back Pervis Estupinan keeps the pitch wide, allowing Valencia to move in towards goal. Plenty will depend on him doing it well in Qatar.

Ecuador are looking for a “captain’s innings” from Valencia, their one outfield player with proven World Cup pedigree. Nicknamed “Superman,” no one is really expecting Valencia to save the world, but there is a more realistic hope that he can carry his club form to Qatar and boost Ecuador’s chances in the World Cup.