If U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann is intimidated by the challenge of facing No. 1 ranked Argentina and Lionel Messi in the Copa America Centenario semifinals Tuesday night, he certainly isn’t letting on.
Klinsmann said before the tournament that his goal was reaching the final four. Now, he is dreaming bigger.
“There’s no reason at all why we can’t win Copa America,” Klinsmann said Sunday in Houston, where a sellout crowd is expected at NRG Stadium for the 9 p.m. semifinal (FS1, Univision).
“We are not scared of them at all,” he continued. “We admire their players. This is now a special moment. I told the players yesterday before we started training, ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity now. You got into the semifinal, you made yourself proud, but now go for more.’”
Although Argentina is the top-ranked team in the world, and Team USA is ranked No. 31, Klinsmann believes his team is capable of pulling off upsets. They already knocked off No. 13 Ecuador and No. 23 Costa Rica in this tournament. In Brazil at the World Cup two summers ago, the Americans survived the “Group of Death,” getting past Ghana and a Portugal team led by Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Americans have faced FIFA’s top-ranked team 12 times since 1993. They won three of those matches: against Brazil in the 1998 CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinals in Los Angeles, against star-studded Spain in the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup semifinals in South Africa and against Germany in a road friendly last year.
Klinsmann is trying to convince U.S. players to stop thinking of themselves as underdogs, and to enter games with the bravado exhibited by the world’s more elite teams.
“We travelled the world the last few years to very difficult friendly games all over Europe and in Mexico and we came away with wins,” Klinsmann said. “We don't need to talk up Argentina any bigger than they are.
“Two years ago we had Mr. Ronaldo against us in Manaus. And we led them 2-1 until the 96th minute (the World Cup match ended in a 2-2 tie). We surprised a lot of people. No one gave us a chance to get out of the group in Brazil. We left Portugal behind, we left Ghana behind.
“Anything is possible in knockout games. You're 50-50 with whoever you play against," he said. “Dream big. Why not? This is about two more games.”
That said, Argentina has been in top form in this tournament, as has five-time FIFA world player of the year Messi, who has four goals and two assists in 164 minutes. The Barcelona star entered the Copa with questions following a back injury and a tax fraud case in Spain. He sat out the opener against Chile. Since then, he has been his usual self, and with his goal against Venezuela tied Gabriel “Batigol” Batistuta’s national team record of 54 goals.
Messi’s supporting cast is also formidable, led by his Barca teammate Javier Mascherano and Napoli forward Gonzalo Higuain. The Argentines are particularly motivated because they lost the 2015 Copa final to Chile, lost the 2014 World Cup final to Germany, and though they’ve won 14 Copa Americas, their last was in 1993.
Messi’s resume is missing a major international title, and he is taking the Americans seriously.
“We're on the right track, but it will be very difficult playing in front of the American crowd,” he said. “Physically they are a very strong team and they can do a lot of damage if they are allowed to play. It is clear that I want to win something with my country and I want to do everything I can to make that happen.”
U.S. players are well aware of the daunting task that awaits them.
“(Messi) is probably the best of all time,” said U.S. captain Michael Bradley. “But there are still plenty of examples of days when teams can collectively make the game hard on him and make space tight and force him to have to dribble sideways in moments, to put him on his right foot, to eliminate certain things and to have the mentality and commitment to do it over and over and over again for 90 minutes.”
The Americans will have to corral Messi without three starters. Midfielders Jermaine Jones (red card) and Weston’s Alejandro Bedoya (yellow card accumulation), and forward Bobby Wood (yellow card accumulation) are suspended. Klinsmann will likely replace Jones with Kyle Beckerman, a veteran defensive midfielder. He could go with seasoned Graham Zusi or up-and-comers Darlington Nagbe or Christian Pulisic in place of Bedoya.
Wood’s replacement could be Chris Wondolowski or Gyasi Zardes. Whoever it is will have to stretch the defense, as Wood has been doing, which has given Clint Dempsey more space in front of the goal.
The challenge is huge, no question. But Bradley has adopted Klinsmann’s attitude. “We don’t want to make this out to be a ‘Mission Impossible.’”