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USA overrun by Messi, Argentina in Copa America semifinals

It was all Argentina from the opening whistle, as the USA fell in the Copa America semifinals to its Messi-led opposition

HOUSTON — Led by a brilliant Lionel Messi, Argentina outplayed and outclassed the U.S. from the very start and came away with a 4-0 victory in the semifinals of the Copa América Centenario on Tuesday.

The outcome of the game wasn’t in doubt after Argentina’s Ezequiel Lavezzi scored a third-minute goal past a hesitating Brad Guzan. Argentina dominated possession and deployed pressure defense to win the ball back almost instantly from a U.S. team that looked overawed by the occasion and the opponent.

The other Argentine goals came courtesy of Messi (on an outrageous free kick) and Gonzalo Higuaín (two second-half strikes).

Argentina advanced to the Copa América final on Sunday against the winner of the Chile-Colombia semifinal. The U.S. will play in the third-place game on Saturday against the loser of the other semifinal.

Here are my three thoughts on the game:

Klinsmann asked for courage and didn’t show it in his lineup

Look, it was always going to be hard for a U.S. team that was missing three starters on card suspensions (Jermaine Jones, Alejandro Bedoya and Bobby Wood). But U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann said his team would play with courage and go for it, before sending out a conservative lineup that included 33-year-old Chris Wondolowski at forward. Klinsmann corrected himself after halftime by moving Gyasi Zardes up top for Wondo, but it was 45 minutes too late.

Argentina was fantastic in this game, but the U.S. could and should have played better soccer. Venezuela had put Argentina on its heels at times in their 4-1 quarterfinal loss, but the U.S. players never did the same in what will be viewed as a missed opportunity with the eyes of America on them.

Messi: As good as advertised

If you ever get a chance to see Messi in person, take it. He’s tremendous to watch on TV, of course, but seeing him live is breathtaking. His free-kick golazo was the best free kick I’ve ever witnessed live in my 20-year journalism career, and it also happened to break Gabriel Batistuta’s all-time Argentina goals record. And as electric as Messi is when he’s on the ball, he’s just as interesting off the ball with his constant movement and thought about where he should be on the field.

It’s not often that you get to see first-hand the greatest practitioner of his sport near the height of his powers, but we were lucky to be on hand for Messi’s performance.

GALLERY: The fans of Copa America Centenario

The U.S. is more or less where it was before Klinsmann took over

This U.S. team is good enough that on home soil it beat Ecuador, Paraguay and Costa Rica, respectable national teams that it probably should beat on home soil. It is not good enough to beat Colombia and especially an Argentina team led by the world’s best player.

Could things be worse? Yes, of course, But is the U.S. on the verge of challenging the world’s best and being a credible candidate to reach Klinsmann’s goal of the World Cup 2018 semifinals? Well, not so much. There were some positive indicators during the first half against Ecuador that the U.S. is capable of playing good soccer against a good team. But we didn’t see that against Argentina, not in the least, and it wasn’t just because of the three suspended starters.

A lot of work lies ahead.