The United States men's national team might have exceeded expectations by reaching the semifinals of Copa America, but they finally met their match on Tuesday. Argentina, the pre-tournament favorites and No. 1 team in the FIFA rankings, lived up to their billing by comfortably beating the USMNT, 4-0, in Houston.
It only took three minutes for the Albiceleste to go on top. The USMNT got confused on a short corner routine, letting Lionel Messi get free at the top of the penalty area. He chipped for Ezequiel Lavezzi, who was also wide-open and headed the ball over Brad Guzan. The American keeper didn't do himself any favors on the goal, either -- he was caught in no-man's land.
A half-hour into the game, Messi drew a foul on Chris Wondolowski 25 yards from goal and stepped up to take the free kick himself. He curled an absolutely perfect shot into the top corner, giving Guzan no chance to make a save and putting Argentina up 2-0. The goal was Messi's 55th in an Argentina shirt, making him his country's all-time leading scorer.
Jurgen Klinsmann opted for some youthful energy at halftime, bringing on 17-year-old Christian Pulisic for Wondolowski. Unfortunately for the Americans, that substitution didn't have the desired effect. Argentina added to their lead in the 50th minute with Gonzalo Higuain finishing off his own rebound after a through ball by Lavezzi.
Lavezzi had his spectacular game ended by a scary moment in the 62nd minute when he flipped over the ad board. He suffered an injury to his arm that was serious enough that he needed to be taken off on a stretcher.
From there, the match was relatively calm, but the Argentines added an exclamation point in the 86th minute. Off a turnover by American substitute Steve Birnbaum, Messi drew multiple defenders toward him, then passed to Higuain for a tap-in.
Argentina advances to the Copa America final and will play the winner of the other semifinal between Colombia and Chile on Sunday. On Saturday, the USMNT will play the loser of that game in the third place game.
United States: Guzan, Johnson, Brooks, Cameron, Yedlin, Zusi, Bradley, Beckerman (Birnbaum 60'), Zardes, Dempsey (Nagbe 78'), Wondolowski (Pulisic 46')
Argentina: Romero, Rojo (Cuesta 84'), Funes Mori, Otamendi, Mercardo, Mascherano, Fernandez (Biglia 59'), Banega, Lavezzi (Lamela 67'), Higuain, Messi
Goals: Lavezzi (3'), Messi (32'), Higuain (50', 86')
The talent gap between Argentina and the USMNT is what you'd expect -- The biggest factor in this game was, undoubtedly, that Argentina has the best squad in the world and the United States' squad is just OK. Lionel Messi, perhaps the best player to ever walk the earth, was on top form. So was Javier Mascherano, one of the best midfield destroyers in the world, and Gonzalo Higuain, one of the best center forwards in the world. When all three are on their game, Argentina will beat just about anyone. There's no shame in that.
But Jurgen Klinsmann didn't put his team in a position to succeed -- Even if Argentina's players were on bad form, it probably wouldn't have mattered. Kyle Beckerman isn't athletic or dynamic enough to be effective in a two-man midfield. A front line of Clint Dempsey and Chris Wondolowski is very slow. "Sit back and hit them on the counter" is a perfectly viable strategy, but it requires someone who can start counters and someone who has enough pace to put the opposing defense under pressure in space. The USMNT had neither of those things. Klinsmann might not have had players as good as Argentina's available to him, but he did have ones who have positive qualities that would have given the USMNT a chance to be threatening. He chose not to play them.
Bobby Wood, Alejandro Bedoya and Jermaine Jones are very good -- All that said, this might have been a different game if the three suspended players the USMNT couldn't use were available. Besides Clint Dempsey and John Brooks, the next three best players in this tournament for the Americans have been the three that were suspended. Argentina probably still wins with them in the USMNT lineup, but the Americans might have actually made it a game. Without them, they offered nothing.