Lionel Messi and Argentina ended the United States’ run at the Copa America Centenario in emphatic fashion with a 3-0 victory in the first semifinal in Houston. It took Argentina just three minutes to puncture U.S. optimism of a first ever Copa America final berth, when Messi chipped through for Ezequiel Lavezzi to head past a stranded Brad Guzan. But the moment of the match was to be provided by Messi himself just past the hour mark. With a sublime curling free-kick into the net, the five-time Ballon d'Or winner effectively secured victory for his team and moved alone as Argentina’s all-time record goalscorer with 55 goals.
The U.S. had been thoroughly outclassed in the opening half and it took less than five minutes into the second period for the damage to increase yet further. Lavezzi this time played provider, sending a cross in for Gonzalo Higuain to beat Guzan at the second attempt. The rout was complete four minutes from the end after Messi found Higuain for a simple finish.
Argentina, aiming to win its first senior international title since 1993, will now play in its third major tournament final in succession. And, after defeats to Germany in the 2014 World Cup final and Chile in the 2015 Copa America final, Argentina will be aiming to make it third time lucky at New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium on Sunday against either Chile or Colombia.
The U.S., meanwhile, will play in the third-place match a day earlier, and is left to reflect on a tournament in which it achieved the stated objective of coach Jurgen Klinsmann but came up a long way short against one of the best teams in the world. After the U.S. failed to register a single shot at goal in the entire contest, the gulf in quality between the sides was, if anything, even more obvious after the 90 minutes than it was before.
And, in Messi, Argentina have the best player in the world playing at or at least very close to his best, something that has not been the case as the team has fallen agonizingly short the last two summers. With such an array of attacking talent that meant Manchester City's Sergio Aguero couldn't even get off the bench, Argentina look difficult to stop by any opponent right now.
Yet, the U.S. hardly helped itself or made it difficult for Argentina in a match where it needed to be perfect to have a chance. A defensive breakdown from a short corner and a goalkeeping error set the tone to allow the opening goal. And throughout the U.S. struggled to keep hold of the ball, committing costly and sloppy turnovers that helped lead to goals number two three and four.
And questions must be asked, too, about the lineup chosen by Klinsmann. Hamstrung by the loss through suspension of Jermaine Jones, Alejandro Bedoya and Bobby Wood, Klinsmann elected to bring Kyle Beckman in alongside Michael Bradley in midfield and fellow veteran Chris Wondolowski up front alongside Clint Dempsey. It led to a team that left gaps for Messi to exploit, failed to press the opposition effectively and struggled desperately to keep the ball when it did win it back, managing just 33 percent of possession.
And in Wondolowski, the U.S. had a virtual passenger up front, unable to make any impact. For the 33-year-old, whose most famous moment in a U.S. shirt remains his miss at the death against Belgium in the 2014 World Cup, and who conceded possession and then the free-kick that led to Messi’s goal, his substitution at halftime could well have signaled a sad end to his U.S. national team career.
On the whole it was a performance that emphasized that, despite topping its group and edging past Ecuador in the quarterfinals, the U.S. and Klinsmann still has much work to do if it is to fulfill its coach’s objective of competing with the best teams in the world.
Argentina certainly falls into that bracket right now. So often it has failed to make the most of the best collection of attacking players of any team in the world. But, with Messi fresh after making a delayed start to the Copa America due to a back injury, Gerardo Martino’s team will undoubtedly be favorite whoever it comes up against in Sunday’s final.