HOUSTON – When you’re playing arguably the best team and player in the world, how much respect is too much?
On Tuesday night, in a historic Copa America Centenario semifinal played in front of a sellout crowd of 70,858, the US national team learned the hard way that respecting Lionel Messi and Argentina and competing with them are two different things.
After three minutes, the US were down 1-0. After 90, it was 4-0. And it could have been more, as Messi collected a goal and two assists while the Americans failed to record a single shot or truly trouble an Argentina side that coasted to a third major final in three years. This after Jurgen Klinsmann proclaimed before the match that the plan was to go “eye to eye” with the world’s top-ranked team.
“We just simply hit a far better team today,” Klinsmann said.
“You were trying to scream on to the field saying, ‘Go at them. Become physical. Step on their toes,’” he added. “I think there tonight you could clearly see in that moment that once we were 1-0 down, we had far too much respect for them.”
Asked about his head coach’s interpretation of the on-field reaction, whether the US had given their opponents too much respect, captain Michael Bradley didn’t hesitate.
“I don’t agree with that,” he said. “I respect his opinion, so don’t make it out to be anything like that.”
No matter where you fall on the respect spectrum, the gap between the two team was obvious before the game began. The hope was that, via an organized approach and some opportunistic finishing, the US might bridge that gap. But once Ezequiel Lavezzi opened the scoring with a looping header via a Messi assist, it became a chasm the US never appeared capable of closing.
“We knew it was going to be a hard game before the whistle blew,” Guzan said. “When you go down a goal to the best team in the world at the moment, it becomes that much harder. After that first goal, there were maybe times when we gave them too much time on the ball. At the same time, I can’t fault the guys in front of me. The work rate, the desire, it’s been fantastic all summer.”
Indeed, the US bounced back from a tournament-opening loss to Colombia with three straight wins – against Costa Rica, Paraguay and Ecuador – to meet their pre-Copa goals as the lone CONCACAF team in the semifinals.
And yet the disappointment in the bowels of NRG Stadium as the US pontificated on their defeat was palpable. They may have been without Jermaine Jones, Alejandro Bedoya and Bobby Wood because of yellow-card accumulation, but they wanted to make history.
It just wasn’t to be.
“After that early goal, I think that our players could feel that, probably in every position on the field, that they are just better than we are,” Klinsmann said.
“I’m not critical with any player. It was a lesson,” he added. “We hit the wall now. We had a fantastic run in this tournament and you have to give the opponent compliments and swallow that pill.”