It was already easy enough to look at Argentina and wonder whom the USMNT would face in the 3rd-place game before Chile demolished Mexico on Saturday night. Argentina had barely booked their place in the semifinals of the Copa Centenario before Chile made friends with the back of El Tri’s net. All of a sudden, the other favorite was no longer an issue. That leaves Argentina, the world’s #1 team, and a tough assignment for the USMNT. Tough, but not impossible.
Don’t worry. This isn’t going to be another Copa America history lesson where we dredge up an old result and try and fail to deftly apply it to what’s happening right now. This version of Argentina and the USMNT aren’t familiar with each other, and prior to kickoff in Houston on Tuesday (9pm ET – Fox Sports 1), that can play however you want. With that in mind, here’s what should be keeping USMNT fans up nights. Well, at least one more night.
Messi is Messi
It’s almost hard to stress how much Lionel Messi changes things. Without him, Argentina is still a top ten team but they’re not as scary. Their attack isn’t as random. They probably won’t punish as many misplays. The tactical shifts to try to isolate their obvious routes toward goal have a better chance of working. With Messi? What he represents for club and country isn’t just randomness. It’s using that ability to move around in the attack so effectively. When Messi is on, the other team has little choice but to shift their tactics. Good luck isolating him completely. This isn’t marking a target forward out of the game by putting a big body or two on him and wearing him down. It’s also not playing the kind of frustration soccer employed effectively by the USMNT in the past against teams like Portugal and that other world soccer superstar. Messi is different because he does the kind of things that seem to not just surprise his own team, it surprises him. If the USMNT goes defensive, it means man marking Messi whenever he’s in Argentina’s attacking half. That’s a risk-reward scenario that normally favors Messi.
Overlooking the rest of Argentina’s attack
No team at this level is going to focus so solely on the superstar that it frees up the other attacking players. That’s what happens with an overmatched team in the group stage, not the semifinals. The problem with having to deal with one of the most effective players in the game is allowing his teammates more space and time on the ball. Gonzalo Higuian is an issue. So is Erik Lamela. They stretch the attack, giving Argentina options they haven’t even needed so far in the Copa Centenario. That’s not building up Argentina into even more of a favorite to win this tournament, it’s just looking at their roster and how they’ve played. For all the criticisms directed at first Uruguay and then Brazil as they exited in the group stage, Argentina’s game has been on since they beat Chile 2-1 to open Group D. Remember, that Chile goal came three minutes into stoppage time.
Argentina has only given up one other goal in this tournament, with Venezuela pulling a goal back to make it 3-1 in the 70th minute of their quarterfinal. Argentina responded immediately. Lamela made it 4-1 in the 71st. That’s as much as the USMNT needs to know about Argentina’s ability to respond. Whatever momentum shift might have happened even two goals down, Argentina squelched it. That’s the kind of demotivator that takes teams out of games regardless of the score, the quick realization that your opponent will be there with an answer.
This has been far from a clean disciplinary tournament for the USMNT. In the last two games, they haven’t been able to get through 90 minutes with 11 players on the field. They also lost two more players due to yellow card accumulation. Argentina has yet to play a game where they’ve seen more cards than their opponent. Nicolas Gaitan is the only Argentine player absent due to yellow card accumulation. Gaitan took over a starting forward job in in place of Messi for the first two games and then from Angel Di Maria, out with injury since the second Group D game against Panama. Considering the level of Argentina’s attack and their insistence on running with three forwards, this is more of an inconvenience than a crisis. It’s the other team trying to figure out solutions to problems throughout their lineup. USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s use of the same 11 players when available means there haven’t been many tactical surprises for the USMNT. Now, without Jermaine Jones, Bobby Wood, and Alejandro Bedoya they have no choice.