And then there were four.
The 100th anniversary Copa America tournament is down to its semifinal round. And the USMNT is among the teams still alive for the championship. After defeating Ecuador 2-1 last Thursday, the Stars and Stripes find themselves as the lone remaining CONCACAF side in the tournament.
It’s a far cry from the sentiment surrounding this side after their opening match. It was then that the US were summarily dispatched at the hands of Colombia by a 2-0 scoreline. One game in and head coach Jurgen Klinsmann‘s stated goal of reaching the semis seemed a pipe dream at best.
Jurgen Klinsmann Vindicated?
But here they are, one win away from a spot in the final. It has to feel quite vindicating for Klinsmann considering where this team was two weeks earlier. Ahead of their second group game against Costa Rica, there was talk among fans to almost hope for a US loss in the hope it might lead to Klinsmann’s ouster. Three wins later, that segment of the fanbase can be summed up below.
You certainly can make the argument that the US is playing with house money at this point. But that’s not to say the team should rest on their laurels and have a “happy to be here” mentality when they take on Argentina on Tuesday. And according to Klinsmann, that won’t happen.
“We want to go further,” Klinsmann told reporters in Houston on Monday. “We are very, very hungry for tomorrow night.”
Argentina: Top Team, Top Player, Exceptional Supporting Cast
There’s no doubt that it will take a combination of inner hunger, mental focus and impeccable execution against Argentina. Regardless of what you think of the FIFA rankings, they’re at the top. And of course, La Albiceleste possess arguably modern football’s most talismanic talent in Lionel Messi.
But much like European club football superpower FC Barcelona, Argentina is much more than Messi. Center forward Gonzalo Higuaín broke a 66-year-old scoring record in the Italian Serie A by netting 36 goals for Napoli in 2015-16. Sergio Agüero scored 29 goals in all competitions in 46 appearances for EPL giant Manchester City.
The world class talent doesn’t end in the attack. Javier Mascherano is Messi’s teammate at Barcelona and is a highly versatile player. He can play either as a center back or a destroyer in front of the back four. Nicolás Otamendi plays along with Agüero at Man City and is an extremely capable central defender, particularly in the air.
You certainly can’t discount how scary this Argentinian squad is from a depth standpoint. That was on full display on Saturday in their 4-1 win over Venezuela in the Copa America quarterfinals. Manager Gerardo Martino had Agüero as well as another talented striker in Erik Lamela as bench options. Both came on in the second half.
Copa America: Argentina’s Relentless Pressure Could Be an Issue
To say that the US will have their hands full with this comprehensive collection of talent is quite an understatement. The tactics of this game will also be a challenge. Argentina has not shied away from playing aggressive high lines in all four of their Copa America games.
This was even more pronounced in the matches that ultimately have mattered the most to Argentina so far. Those two were the Group D opener against Andean rival Chile and the quarterfinal tie with Venezuela. In both games, they were relentless trying to win the ball in advanced positions on the field.
Take a look at the following two Opta chalkboards taken from MLSSoccer.com. They outline recoveries (orange triangles), interceptions (blue triangles) and tackles (green triangles) for Argentina against Chile and Venezuela respectively.
Argentina averaged 29 of these ball-winning defensive actions in their attacking half against Chile and Venezuela. To put this in perspective, none of the other three semifinalists had more than 25 total beyond midfield in any of their previous four games. That fact is made evident in the following graphic.
Needless to say, the US will need to be disciplined in initial buildup. Argentina will be hunting the ball like a pack of hyenas when they lose possession. In many ways, it will resemble the “gegenpressing” philosophy that Jurgen Klopp has perfected at Borussia Dortmund and now at Liverpool.
Being able to prevent a dynamic team in Argentina from winning tackles and second balls high up the park will be one of a few key elements to watch for Tuesday. Players such as Michael Bradley and Kyle Beckerman need to be ultra-focused in their distribution.
Michael Bradley and How a Short-Handed USMNT Deal with the Pressure
How Bradley’s role differs if at all from previous games will be interesting to watch. It’s expected that Klinsmann will start Beckerman in place of the suspended Jermaine Jones. Does this mean Bradley will be slotted into a more box-to-box role while Beckerman takes on the look of a pure number six?
How Klinsmann puts together the midfield with Jones and Alejandro Bedoya unavailable is one of the biggest questions heading into this game. Will this be Darlington Nagbe‘s first start of the tournament? Does Christian Pulisic come in at some point?
One thing is certain. Bradley will need to be better with the ball at his feet. The careless turnovers that characterized his performance at times against Colombia and Ecuador simply can’t happen against Argentina. If so, the US will be forced into emergency defending in trying to put out fires from their opponents’ pressing.
Can the Stars and Stripes Pull this Off?
Make no mistake about it. The US will come into this game in Houston as rank underdogs. Argentina are expected to not just prevail on Tuesday, but win the whole tournament. Messi will be super motivated given the one stain on his legacy is not having won a major international tournament for his country.
All that means is that the US has every opportunity to shock the world. To do so, they’ll have to turn in an efficient performance that’s as mistake free as possible.
John Brooks has to continue to be the rock in central defense that he has been throughout this campaign. Gyasi Zardes‘ impressive two-way wing play has to remain a fixture for this side. And Clint Dempsey has a golden opportunity to enjoy a crowning achievement in his career while playing on the same field as Messi. The two have combined for seven goals in Copa America and are both second all-time in scoring for their respective countries.
It’s going to require a team effort. It’s going to require a high level of belief. It’s probably going to require a little bit of luck. However, if the stars align and the right things happen, the US can win this and continue to frustrate arguably the best player in the world when it comes to international trophies.
But the pressure will be high in more ways than one and they will have to overcome it all if they truly want this to become a reality.