Jurgen Klinsmann has repeatedly talked up the importance of the Copa America Centenario as a chance for his United States side to test itself against some of the world’s best, outside of a World Cup. On Tuesday in Houston he will get his chance. In the semifinals of the the 100-year anniversary edition of South America’s championship, taking place outside of its home continent for the first time, the U.S. will go head-to-head with the No. 1 ranked team in the world, containing arguably the greatest player of all time.
Argentina and Lionel Messi are what stand between Klinsmann’s outfit and the chance to make history and reach the final of the Copa America. It is a tantalizing opportunity, and one the U.S. believes it can seize.
“Yeah, we're confident," striker Bobby Wood said of a clash with Argentina. "We're confident that we can keep up with any team, for sure.”
That confidence has been bred through three consecutive victories and, in a break from Klinsmann’s tendency toward experimentation, a consistent starting lineup.
The early omens were far from positive in a 2-0 defeat to Colombia that was comprehensive, no matter what statistics Klinsmann attempted to use in his side’s favor. After dismal failure at last year’s Gold Cup, defeat to Mexico in a Confederations Cup playoff and a less than convincing start to World Cup qualifying, the pressure had piled on the German coach. The possible end of his five-year tenure became an even more realistic prospect when boss Sunil Gulati stated that results had not been good enough and that wins, in competitive matches, were required.
Not for the first time in Klinsmann’s tenure, the team came up with the goods when disaster, in this case a group-stage exit for the tournament host, loomed. Costa Rica was brushed aside 4-0, before the U.S. hung on with 10 men against Paraguay for a victory that secured a quarterfinal place.
In the last eight, it took on Ecuador in a old-fashioned slugfest that could have gone either way, particularly after both Ecuador’s Manchester United winger Antonio Valencia and U.S. midfielder Jermaine Jones were sent off early in the second half. In the end, while Ecuador passed up golden chances to score, the U.S., aided by a goal and assist from 33-year-old Clint Dempsey, proved more clinical to win 2-1 in Seattle.
Dempsey, who lost the captaincy last year and faced calls from many to start being fazed out of the team, has shown throughout the tournament that he remains indispensable. Indeed, in the midway point between the 2014 and 2018 World Cups, Klinsmann continues to rest heavily on his veteran core. Dempsey, Jones, captain Michael Bradley and Geoff Cameron have started every game so far.
But other, younger players, have also come to the fore. John Brooks has come of age as a central defender in the Copa America and was particularly outstanding in keeping out Paraguay in the final group game. At the other end of the field, Wood, who has just earned a move to Bundesliga side Hamburg, has provided a real presence up front. Against Ecuador, it was the Hawaiian-born 23-year-old’s running in behind the defense that was the key factor in the American victory.
But the challenge against Argentina will be a different matter entirely, and a far more accurate barometer of whether the U.S. under Klinsmann has come any closer to being able to go toe-to-toe with the best in the world. And it could well have to do so without two key players. Although DeAndre Yedlin will return from suspension, subtly integral midfielder Alejandra Bedoya will now have to serve a ban for picking up his second yellow card of the competition against Ecuador. The same fate will befall Wood, unless the U.S. is successful in appealing his yellow card against Ecuador. The U.S. has also lodged an appeal over Jones' red card for putting his hand to the face of an opponent.
Not only does the U.S. face being without three key players, but it will be taking on an opponent that has reached the last four barely breaking sweat. After winning all three games in its group, including brushing aside defending Copa America champion and fellow semifinalist Chile, Argentina dealt emphatically with Venezuela in the quarterfinals, winning 4-1.
Perhaps most pleasing of all is the status of its star man. In the past two summers, Messi has been less than his sharpest by the time the World Cup and the Copa America reached its decisive stages, playing its part in Argentina suffering agonizing final defeats on both occasions.
This time, though, the Barcelona star appears fresh and in form. Coming into the tournament with a minor back injury, Messi played just 75 minutes in the group stage in two cameos off the bench, which included a brilliant quick-fire hat-trick against Panama. It wasn’t until the quarterfinal that Messi started for the first time. And he wasted no time in displaying the qualities that have earned him five Ballon d’Ors.
In the eighth minute, he played a pass of staggering precision to carve open the Venezuela defense and leave Gonzalo Higuain to apply the finishing touch. Then on the hour mark came the moment most inside Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, had been waiting for. Messi poked the ball into the back of the net after a swift interchange of passes to register his 54th goal for Argentina and equal the record held by Gabriel Batistuta.
"He knows that he's a game-changing player," coach Gerardo Martino said. "Everybody's trying to cancel him. But he knows when to play one against one. He knows when to pass the ball to other players. There may be times when he lets some other player take advantage of this.
"I'm pleased by the way he has recovered from his injury. He's reinvigorated the team. I'm very happy to have him good shape, especially heading into the semifinals.”
On Tuesday, the U.S. will now face the ominous task of trying to prevent Messi from taking sole possession of the record.
Prediction: It will be a massive step up in class for the U.S. in this semifinal. Argentina, even if Angel di Maria fails to recover from injury and without Nico Gaitain due to suspension, possess the greatest array of attacking talent of any country in the world. Messi is sharp, Higuain is now scoring goals and then there are the options of Sergio Aguero, Erik Lamela and Ezequiel Lavezzi. While Brooks has been superb at the back, the U.S. has allowed chances that haven’t been punished throughout the tournament. It is difficult to imagine Argentina being so charitable. At the other end, Argentina’s defense is not exactly watertight, but without Wood the U.S. could lack the pace and presence to really test it. And, although the U.S. has the considerable advantage of an extra two days’ rest, ultimately, the gulf in class should tell in a convincing Argentina win.
Predicted Score: Argentina 3-1 USA
Date: Tuesday, June 21
Kickoff Time: 9 p.m. EDT
Venue: NRG Stadium, Houston