Tuesday night marks the second biggest game in Jurgen Klinsmann‘s tenure as the head coach of the USMNT. It also happens to be the first time he’s been pitted against the current number one overall team in the FIFA world rankings in a competitive game as the US manager. The last elimination game Klinsmann’s side faced outside of CONCACAF was an extra time loss to Belgium which sent the Yanks home after exceeding all expectations. Tuesday’s game is an even more Herculean task as they face Lionel Messi and Argentina for a spot in the Copa America Centenario Final.
USMNT Clear Underdogs Tuesday Against Argentina
For many, Tuesday’s match is just another David versus Goliath scenario with the USMNT being the underdogs once again. It’s an all too common occurrence around US Soccer. A country of over 300 million, with some of the best athletes in the world, struggles to win consistently at the highest level. For others, like me, this is their home national team against their second nationality or chosen national team.
Before 1994, international soccer was almost non-existent to Americans. Given Diego Maradona’s heroics for Argentina, and their winning three trophies just before the United States hosted the World Cup in 1994, they garnered a following all over the world. La Albiceleste won Copa America in both 1991 and 1993 as well as the Confederations Cup in 1992. This all came after a 1986 World Cup Championship.
Brazil 2014 nearly saw these sides collide in the quarterfinals. But the extra time goal by Belgium prevented that dreaded meeting and left those dual fans disappointed, but free from conflict. Despite being one of the stronger sides, Argentina struggled down the stretch in 2014 as they narrowly beat Belgium and won on penalty kicks after a 0-0 draw against the Netherlands.
What This Game Means to Both Countries
For fans of Argentina, this is a chance at redemption. It’s also a chance for Messi, the best player in the world, to get his first major international trophy. 2014 looked to be his year. No European side had ever hoisted the World Cup in South America. Everything was ready for a storybook ending. But the German machine kept Argentina off the score sheet for 120 minutes. With the likes of Messi, Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, and Sergio Aguero, goals should have come easily. It’s hard not to consider the current generation a golden one, but trophies just haven’t come as history has been repeatedly made by opponents. First came Germany’s win in Brazil. That was followed by Chile winning Copa America for the first time ever.
For fans of the United States, this is a chance to knock off the best team in the world. It’s a chance to prove they can compete with the big boys. A win here would go a long way towards redemption from crashing out of the Gold Cup and missing out on the upcoming 2017 Confederation’s Cup. Winning will likely require Clint Dempsey to lead the attack and add to his current third place scoring total in the tournament.
Individual accolades are wonderful, but the confidence boost beating Argentina would bring to the defense would be immeasurable. Going from one of the biggest liabilities to one of the strengths is without a doubt the biggest reason the team is here. The team has only conceded 3 times throughout the tournament and all three have been from set pieces. It’s a remarkable turnaround given the constant rotation and inability for any player to lock down a starting spot.
The USMNT has proven that they can compete with the best before. In the 2009 Confederations Cup they beat Spain 2-0 in the semifinals and were leading Brazil at halftime of the final 2-0 before giving up three goals in the second half.
USMNT vs Argentina: Divided Loyalties
When loyalties collide, it’s enough to tear a fan apart. I grew up watching Argentina with my grandfather and hearing stories about the legendary Maradona. I’ve waited my entire life to see them lift a trophy. 2014 wasn’t the year and they failed to deliver again in 2015. Now, they have to go through my home country on their way to the title. But there is something to be said for the underdog culture and fighting spirit the American Outlaws bring out in a USMNT fan. I’ve been involved with the local chapter since I joined. It’s a family. Walking away from them, or turning my back on them during the biggest game of the year is unthinkable.
According to the goal set at the beginning, it’s mission accomplished for the USMNT. They are playing with house money on Tuesday after reaching Klinsmann’s stated goal of making the semis. A loss will sting just like the Belgium defeat, but it comes after the desired result. Even if the third place game goes perfectly, it will feel like greatness was just out of reach.
For Argentina, a loss on Tuesday would be an utter defeat and total disappointment. Words cannot describe it. A win is just the next step on the path before facing Columbia or a rematch against Chile.
No matter how the game turns out, divided loyalties will leave me both happy and sad. Either result will be a big step for one of my teams. It’s an odd position to be in. Without Argentina, I would not be the soccer fan I am today. Without that early start, I likely would not have bought into the American Outlaw culture.
But, I’m an American and the Outlaws are like family. My gut and my head tell me it’s hopeless, but still I Believe. The Yanks can go marching on and I’ll be cheering them every step of the way, from the opening kickoff until the final whistle.
Argentina can wait.