The United States, now through to the semifinals of the Copa America Centenario, has already met the objective set by coach Jurgen Klinsmann ahead of the country’s hosting of the 100-year celebration of South America’s championship. Yet any danger of complacency should be fully eradicated by a meeting with Argentina, the world's No. 1-ranked team, featuring the best player on the planet — and possibly the greatest in history — Lionel Messi.
It is an ominous task that awaits the U.S. men’s national team Tuesday at a sold-out NRG Stadium in Houston. But it also is a golden opportunity for each player to enshrine his name in U.S. soccer legend.
The tournament cannot match the FIFA World Cup, in quality or prestige. And it has suffered problems from the outset: from the corruption scandal that engulfed FIFA to top players dropping out and the issue of simply making casual U.S. sports fans aware of the competition’s existence and history.
But momentum is growing. The U.S. team’s last three matches each broke records on Fox Sports 1 for its most watched soccer games ever. On the pitch, as the playing field is often called, the team has grown, too. After a dispiriting opening loss to Colombia, the U.S. faced the ignominious prospect of dropping out at the group stage, while Klinsmann found his very job under threat.
Klinsmann and his side have bounced back, however, beating Costa Rica and then Paraguay to finish at the top of the group before edging past Ecuador in the quarterfinals. It is tempting to conclude that the U.S. is now playing with house money — little to lose, everything to gain.
Klinsmann, though, is determined for his players not to view it that way. Stressing the dangers of any self satisfaction and relaxation, the German, who has continually stressed his desire for the U.S. to enhance its position in the global soccer order since taking charge in 2011, wants his squad to grab this opportunity with both hands.
"This is top notch. This is what you want to experience," he told U.S. Soccer on Sunday. "It's fun to watch [Argentina]. It's impressive, but it's also a huge motivation to take them on. This is a special moment. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You got into the semifinal. You made yourself proud. Now go for more.”
Despite three straight victories, the U.S. will not go into Saturday’s match without concerns. Its run through this 16-team tournament has been built upon a consistent team selection, but that will now have to change against Argentina, with three players ruled out through suspension.
An appeal lodged by U.S. Soccer against a red card picked up by midfielder Jermaine Jones and yellow card shown to striker Bobby Wood against Ecuador was rejected, meaning both will be banned. And Alejandro Bedoya, the versatile midfielder who has performed so much unsung work throughout the Copa America will also miss out after accumulating two yellow cards.
Klinsmann now faces some critical decisions. One is almost certain to be bringing DeAndre Yedlin, available again after suspension, back in at right-back. But Fabian Johnson, who has started every game at left-back, could move to cover one of the gaps in midfield. Much thereafter depends on how positive Klinsmann is willing to be. He could opt to move Gyasi Zardes up front alongside Clint Dempsey or play Dempsey alone in attack. Meanwhile, the exciting but inexperienced Darlington Nagbe may come into midfield, or Klinsmann could settle for the more defensive-minded Kyle Beckerman and perhaps even Perry Kitchen.
The decisions are not easy, particularly considering the quality, not to mention motivation, of the opposition. American fans have become increasingly accustomed in recent years to getting to see some of the world’s best players, either taking on the U.S. in friendly internationals or touring with their club teams in glitzy summer exhibition matches. Yet not since the country hosted the 1994 World Cup, and the U.S. bowed out to eventual champion Brazil, has a team of Argentina’s quality been here in a truly competitive setting.
For while there were doubts about how much this specially arranged edition of the Copa America mattered to many of the South American teams, which were already in the midst of World Cup qualifying and in some cases looking ahead to the Olympics, for Argentina this tournament really matters. In a drought that is hard to fathom given the riches in talent it has had at its disposal in recent years, Argentina has not won a senior international title since 1993.
This competition represents the latest chance and, for this generation, one of the final opportunities for Argentina to get the monkey off its back. For Messi, it is an opportunity to finally add to his remarkable haul of silverware with Barcelona with a winners’ medal for his country.
In the past two summers, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner has, more than anyone, felt the agony of Argentina’s near misses, losing the World Cup final in extra time to Germany and the 2015 Copa America final to host Chile. It was Messi, the man whom Argentines see shine week-in and week-out for Barcelona on television, but who left his homeland as a 13-year-old, who carried the brunt of supporter frustration for failing to reproduce his very best when it mattered most for his country.
So determined is Messi to deliver a prize for his homeland that the clean-cut golden boy of soccer has vowed not to shave for the duration of the tournament in a superstition that has been embraced by some of his teammates.
Both Messi and his team are arriving at the semifinal stage in fine shape. In four games, all victories, Argentina has scored 14 goals and conceded only two. As for Messi, coming into the tournament with a minor back injury, he did not make his debut until the final 30 minutes of Argentina’s second game against Panama. But he made an immediate impact, delighting the thousands of fans who have turned up to Argentina’s games across the country decked out in Messi No. 10 shirts, by scoring a quick-fire hat trick. (A hat trick is scoring three consecutive goals in the same game without being interrupted by any other goals.)
After coming on at halftime against Bolivia, Messi then made his first start in a quarterfinal with Venezuela and netted a goal in a 4-1 win that took him level with Gabriel Batistuta as Argentina’s record goal scorer. On Tuesday, in a monumental game for U.S. soccer, Messi will be aiming to hijack it for his own personal celebration and mark yet another record in his extraordinary career.
It is not just Messi that the U.S. has to worry about, however. Joining him in attack will be Gonzalo Higuaín, fresh from breaking the scoring record in Italy’s Serie A with Napoli last season.
Like Klinsmann, though, Argentina coach Gerardo Martino will not have his full quota of players available. New Atlético Madrid signing Nicolás Gaitán is both injured and suspended, while Ángel di María is still compromised by an abductor injury, although he could be fit enough for a place on the bench. Not that Argentina is exactly short of options. Stepping into the lineup is expected to be Paris Saint-Germain’s Ezequiel Lavezzi, while Manchester City star Sergio Agüero is likely to have to settle once again for a place among the substitutes.
The U.S. does have some history on its side, having famously beaten Argentina 3-0 when an invitee to the 1995 Copa America. That game, though, mattered little to Argentina, with its progress through the group stage already achieved. This time, in front of more than 70,000 fans, there is no room for second chances.
Betting Odds (via Oddschecker)
Argentina win: 4/9
USA win: 13/2
Kickoff Time: 9 p.m. EDT
TV Channel: Fox Sports 1, Univision, Univision Deportes