HOUSTON — Simply watching Argentina’s opening game of this Copa América Centenario, a victory over reigning South American champion Chile, was a draining and awe-inspiring experience.
“We watched it in the coaches' room and we were exhausted at halftime because they went 200 miles an hour, technically it was unbelievable perfection,” U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann said the following day. “To watch that on TV and then you watch who they bring off the bench, Argentina, holy moly!”
On Tuesday night in Houston, Klinsmann and his players got to experience Argentina in the flesh. And up close, La Albiceleste was even faster, deeper and more breathtaking. It was “holy moly” and then some. Discussing ways to limit Lionel Messi, watching film, conjuring game plans and tactics—they can do only so much in the face of such an overwhelming disparity in talent. Argentina took the lead in just the third minute here at sold-out NRG Stadium and coasted to a 4-0 win in the Copa América semifinal, ending the host’s three-game win streak and its hopes of tournament title. And Argentina did so with flair, ruthlessness and ease.
The result left no ambiguity about the two teams’ relative position in the sport’s global hierarchy. Klinsmann had targeted the Copa final four and he got there despite starting off with a loss to Colombia.
The U.S. proved it could beat nations like Paraguay and Ecuador–the sort that qualify for World Cups but rarely go too far. But semifinals at major tournaments typically feature soccer’s elite teams.
While the U.S. has demonstrated a consistent ability to survive group stages, which is no small achievement, it’s still nowhere near ready to consistently challenge the biggest teams in the biggest games.
“The [Copa América] semifinals are teams that are ranked 1, 3, 5 and 31 in the world,” U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gualati said following Tuesday’s loss. “Today’s a good day to judge where we are in the program overall … and we’re obviously a long way off. We knew that going in. But we knew we were a long way off when we beat Spain in 2009 or Germany and Holland last year. Those things can happen. That’s obviously what you’re hoping for today.”
It was pretty clear shortly after kickoff that it wasn’t going to happen Tuesday. The U.S. had barely breached the Argentine half of the field when Messi, who was wide open at the top of the penalty arc, chipped a perfect pass over the back line and onto the head of Ezequiel Lavezzi.
“The game didn’t start the way we wanted to,” midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. “With the early goal, that was really tough for us and kind of spurred them on, and once they got going it was really hard to stop.”
The goal was going to come, whether it was in the third minute or shortly thereafter. Argentina was just too good. Messi found as much space and freedom as he needed, Lavezzi and Éver Banega circulated the ball flawlessly and the relentless pressure overwhelmed a U.S. midfield that already was limited by the suspensions of Jermaine Jones and Alejandro Bedoya. The Americans completed just 64% of their passes in the first half (71% for the game) and didn’t take a single shot.
U.S. forwards Clint Dempsey and Chris Wondolowski were erased, and when Messi scored on a beautiful free kick in the 32nd minute, the game’s competitive portion was over.
“After three minutes [going] 1-0 down, that’s quite a knock,” Klinsmann said. “But also I mean, you saw tonight why they are the No. 1 team in the world and have got to give them a huge compliment to Messi and Higuaín and Mascherano and the guys, it’s just top-class what they’re playing … You’ve got to give them huge credit and I told the guys there’s nothing to be ashamed of after the game.”
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Klinsmann has been criticized for sugar-coating losses but in this case, he was right. There really was nothing to be ashamed of. Argentina played in the first World Cup final and in the most recent one, winning two in between. It produced Messi and Maradona and dozens of other phenomenal players. Argentines worship the sport, and their devotion is evident on the field. Klinsmann said his team “couldn’t compensate” for the absence of Jones, Bedoya and forward Bobby Wood. They’re crucial to the U.S., but none would have a prayer of playing regularly for Argentina. Which American would? Perhaps John Brooks would be an asset at center back. Maybe Fabian Johnson would challenge for a few minutes on the flank. But that’s pretty much it.
“At every position, it’s an incredible team,” Gulati said. And Sergio Agüero and Ángel Di María didn’t even play.
Klinsmann implied that his players performed as if they knew they didn't belong on the same field.
“You were trying to scream into the field and say, ‘Go at them. Become physical. Just step on their toes.’ And I think tonight you could clearly see that in the moment once were 1-0, we had far too much respect,” Klinsmann said. “[Argentina] could smell that. They felt that and then they started to play that game with all the quality that they have.”
He mentioned Messi’s free kick and how the five-time world player of the year nudged the ball forward a few inches at time while the referee was positioning the wall, thus improving his range.
“We’re just too nice in those moments,” Klinsmann said. “After that early goal, we just let our players feel that they’re in every position on the field just better than we are.”
Bradley said he respected but disagreed with his coach’s assessment.
“Obviously it’s a very good team, in terms of quality but also in terms of what they’re able to do tactically—the way they space themselves, some of the ideas that they have,” the captain said. “Any time you play a big game against a team like that, one of the best teams in the world, you have to be, I would use the word ‘perfect,’ but you know you have to be on top of every little thing in a good way, and for 90 minutes. Tonight, we weren’t able to do that.”
The U.S. will move on to Saturday’s bronze-medal game in Glendale, Arizona, where it will get a rematch with Colombia or a showdown with Chile. It then will be another two years before it gets another crack at a top opponent in official competition. That’s the downside of CONCACAF, a top-heavy confederation that offers relatively easy passage to the World Cup but not a whole lot of seasoning for the tough games you play there.
That’s going to make the gap much tougher to close. Klinsmann, who likely saved his job with the win streak and semifinal berth, understands that. He said Tuesday night’s rout was all part of the process. It was a reminder of what’s required.
“I’m not critical with any player. This is just, it was a lesson. We hit the wall now in a fantastic run in this tournament and you have to give the opponent compliments and swallow that pill,” he said.
“Hopefully when we play these teams every year, when you play them on a regular basis, I think that respect kind of gets smaller and smaller,” Klinsmann continued. “It’s all mental and the more often we can play these teams, these caliber of teams, the more we’re going to learn. The more I think the players will be more and more confident to take them on. With some teams it already kind of happens. Today it didn’t because it was just a number too big for us.”