The Yanks put on a lackluster performance against the world’s best as Messi & Co. march to victory
A sell-out crowd of 70,000 plus in Houston were witness to what can only be described as a collective sigh from the US Men’s National Team. Their manager, Jurgen Klinsmann, had already declared that reaching the Copa America semifinals was their goal. And man, did the USMNT look like they didn’t have anything left to fight for. When the final whistle blew, the Americans had conceded four goals on defense without even mustering a shot in response on offense. The USMNT just looked happy to be there.
THE GREATEST PLAYER. EVER.
Wherever you fall in the Messi v. Ronaldo debate, I think tonight showed that it’s hard to argue against the impact that Lionel Messi makes over the course of a match. His footprint was seen almost immediately in the fourth minute when Argentina struck first. Klinsmann’s game plan for the USMNT focused on containing Messi. The downside of this strategy is that it ignored the ten other Argentinians on the pitch. When the ball fell to Messi’s feet at the top of the box after a corner, John Brooks, Clint Dempsey, and Kyle Beckerman all reacted by rushing out to defend him. This left a huge piece of real estate open to former-PSG winger Ezequiel Lavezzi, who received an effortlessly chipped pass from Messi, and calmly headed it home.
Messi would later be carelessly fouled by USMNT’s Chris Wondolowski (more on him later). Messi would go on to deliver the perfect free kick from 28 yards out. The ball kissed the underside of the crossbar before landing in the top right corner of the net, averting the reach of keeper Brad Guzan. It wasn’t over the wall. It wasn’t even in the same zip code as the wall. Messi opted just to go over and around Guzan himself in an unstoppable effort. Messi would go on to assist another goal, slotted home by a wide open Gonzalo Higuain.
The most fun part about watching Messi play in Argentina’s 4-3-3 is that he is given free reign to run wherever he wants on the pitch. There were a couple instances where I caught Messi, a right wing, playing next to his left back, on the complete other side of the pitch. Much like his Barcelona teammate Andres Iniesta, Messi acts as the heart of his national team’s attack, pumping blood to all its lethal extremities.
A SHADOW OF THEMSELVES
I must give credit where credit is due. Before Tuesday night’s bout in Houston, the USMNT were making an argument for standout team of the tournament. Their defense was firing on all four cylinders. They were dominant in midfield. They were decisive in their attacking third.
But any great campaign does not come without its casualties.
The USMNT were sincerely missing the suspended Bobby Wood, Alejandro Bedoya, and Jermaine Jones. Wood and Bedoya both succumbed to yellow card accumulation, while Jones was given a straight red in what can only be described as the worst decision in American sports since Seattle decided not to run the ball. The USMNT needed their remaining starters to give the performances of their lifetimes, and none of them lived up to the task.
Klinsmann’s starting XI was uninspiring at best. It was safe, but it threw the Yanks out of their groove. For one, Kyle Beckerman was tapped to start alongside Michael Bradley at CDM. Bradley had gone the whole tournament playing as the sole No. 6 on the pitch, and he looked uncomfortable out there. Bradley’s role in the first four matches of Copa was to shield the back line and start counter attacks with his passes from the defensive half. But with Beckerman in the match, Bradley was now expected to go forward and conduct attacks as a sorta-but-not-really playmaker. He failed miserably. He constantly gave balls away in the offensive half that led to quick Argentine counters, which were made worse by the fact that he wasn’t back to defend.
On the wings, Graham Zusi and Chris Wondolowski made their first starts of the tournament. Zusi was everywhere on the pitch, constantly putting an extra effort to run down balls that were unattainable. However, his passing was abysmal, consistently turning the ball over. On the other side, there was Wondo. Full disclosure, I have a bit of a grudge against Wondo for what he did (or didn’t do) at the 2014 World Cup. But I was hoping that he would redeem himself tonight against Argentina. Instead, he did nothing. Actually, the only thing of note I can recall him doing was fouling Lionel Messi without even going for the ball. Wondo received a well-deserved yellow, and Messi thundered the ball into the back of the net to go two goals to the good.
I’ll be the first to admit that I was cheering in my living room when 17 year-old Christian Pulisic was being subbed into the game at halftime for Chris Wondolowski. Not only because Wondo was out, but because Pulisic is seen by many to be the future of American soccer. Pulisic went on to play like, well, a 17 year-old. He displayed by far and away the most energy on the American side of the match, but failed to deliver anything technically to the game. While tonight’s showing was mediocre at best, we’ll get to see Pulisic again this summer, when he competes in Rio with the rest of the US Olympic U-23 squad.
I wasn’t expecting our boys to win. But I was expecting a showing that was consistent with the rest of our tournament. In the end, notable absences and the GOAT left the US without a shot towards goal, and without a spot in the Copa final. The USMNT will play in Phoenix this weekend for third place against the loser of Colombia/Chile.