U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann insisted his players were not afraid of top-ranked Argentina and Lionel Messi before Tuesday night’s Copa America Centenario semifinal. He cautioned his team against “talking up Argentina any bigger than they are.”
But it was clear from the opening minutes at NRG Stadium in Houston that the Americans were outmanned, overmatched, and tentative against an Argentine squad that was as good as advertised. Klinsmann conceded afterward that his players had “far too much respect” for the Argentines.
Argentina schooled the U.S. players, exposed their technical deficiencies and cruised to a 4-0 victory that has them on the cusp of their first major title in 23 years. Argentina advanced to Sunday’s final in East Rutherford, N.J., against the winner of Wednesday night’s game between third-ranked Colombia and defending-champion Chile, ranked No 5 in the world. The 31st-ranked Team USA has to settle for a third-place game Saturday in Glendale, Ariz.
Messi showed why he is a five-time FIFA world player of the year, scoring on a brilliant free kick and setting up two of Argentina’s other goals. The disparity between the teams was evident in the number of errant passes the Americans turned over, and also in the most glaring stat of the night: the U.S. team did not manage to take a single shot all night, while Argentina took 11, seven of them on frame.
Three suspended starters were missing from the U.S. lineup – Bobby Wood, Jermaine Jones, and Weston’s Alejandro Bedoya. They were replaced by veterans Chris Wondolowski, Kyle Beckerman and Graham Zusi, none of whom stood out.
The Argentines possessed the ball two-thirds of the time and completed 93 percent of their passes. Argentina has outscored its opponents 18-2 in this tournament. Messi has five goals and four assists, despite sitting out the opener and not starting the second game.
Asked at the post-game press conference how big the gap is between the U.S. and the world’s elite teams, Klinsmann smiled and replied: “That’s a tough one. I don’t have that answer right now.”
“It’s just top class, what they’re playing,” Klinsmann said of Argentina. “And I think the [U.S.] players realized that on the field, as well. It’s a special team, Argentina.”
The U.S. loss, following Mexico’s 7-0 loss to Chile, suggests that there remains a separation between the best teams in CONCACAF and CONMEBOL.
Despite the disappointment, Klinsmann said there are lessons to be taken from the loss.
“The more we play these caliber of teams, the more we are going to learn,” he said. “The players will be more confident to take them on. This is just a process.
“Hopefully we can play these teams every year. When you play them on a regular basis, that respect gets smaller and smaller. If you play them for the first time in five years, you look over and know where they play (for which European club) and know their jerseys, it’s all mental again.”
U.S. defender Geoff Cameron agreed that American players were too deferential toward the Argentines.
“We let them dictate the pace of the game. We let them get into a flow, and we weren’t physical enough. I think we respected them a little too much,” Cameron said.
The U.S. has qualified for the past seven World Cups (only six other countries can say that), survived the “Group of Death” at the 2014 World Cup, stunned star-studded Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinal, and won friendlies over Italy, Germany and Netherlands in recent years. But the manner in which Argentina beat the United States on Tuesday illustrated that there is work to be done.
“There will be always a step backwards, and then we will go two more forward. That is a part of our process,” Klinsmann said. “So I told the guys, heads up and just swallow it.”
“Today is a good day to judge where we are in program overall,” U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati told reporters after Tuesday’s loss. “We’re obviously a long way off. We knew that going in.
“The semifinals are the teams that are ranked 1, 3, 5 and 31 in the world. We’re still going to play a top-five team on Saturday. Let’s make that part of the overall assessment.”