HOUSTON – The US national team won’t park the bus. They won’t bunker. No, when the Americans face Argentina with a place in the Copa America Centenario final on the line, the plan is to take the game to the No. 1-ranked team in the world.
That’s the message Jurgen Klinsmann drove home on Monday in his pregame press conference. Whether that approach is practical or wise remains to be seen, but it’s clear the US boss sees Tuesday’s high-stakes match (9 pm ET; FS1, Univision, UDN) as an opportunity to back up what he’s been preaching for the better part of five years.
“We want to go eye-to-eye,” Klinsmann said. “We’ve done that tremendously well throughout this tournament and there’s no need to change now the way we approach it, with all the respect for the opponent.
“It’s about confidence, it’s about hunger, it’s about willingness to suffer and also stick to our game plan and go at them, go forward too,” he added. “It’s not just to bunker in. We’re not going to go and play with 10 guys in the box. That’s not our game. We cannot do that. If you want to get to the final, you’ve got to score sooner or later. You’ve got to go forward. We are not playing for a penalty shootout. It’s about courage. They should have the confidence to be courageous and really enjoy this moment.”
The US’s confidence has been growing steadily throughout a tournament which saw them lose their opener against Colombia – a result that prompted a “completely exaggerated” reaction from fans and media, according to Klinsmann – before dispatching Costa Rica, Paraguay and Ecuador to become the lone CONCACAF side to reach the semifinals.
Now that the Americans are here, there’s no time to be intimidated by a team that boasts not only Messi, but Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, Javier Mascherano and a host of other world-class talents. There’s no time to be deferential, either.
While there’s no doubt the US will have to defend admirably in order to keep Argentina at bay, they also know they must score to have any chance of making history. They’ll have to do so without starting midfielders Jermaine Jones and Alejandro Bedoya as well as Bobby Wood, whose strength, speed and goal-scoring instincts have helped fuel the US attack alongside Clint Dempsey this summer.
“For Clint, for [Gyasi Zardes], for Chris Wondolowski, for our attackers, they need to play their own game because we need them to be dangerous and to score goals,” captain Michael Bradley said.
“There’s always two parts to the game. There’s attacking and there’s defending,” he added. “There’s concentrating on playing well yourselves and concentrating on making the game hard on the other team. That doesn’t change just because you play against Argentina. No matter what game you play in there’s always the need to strike the right balance.”
Of course, Argentina face a similar conundrum. Concede first and they’ll give the US an opportunity to protect a lead. Any breakthrough in the attacking third is likely to be spurred on by Dempsey, whose movement in the box and knack for finishing surely won’t have escaped the attention of Gerardo Martino and his staff.
“We just need to make sure that once we get the ball in the attacking third we move the ball well,” Dempsey said. “We find the right looks to find a goal. To get good opportunities and put the ball on frame and give ourselves a chance to score goals.”
“It goes both ways,” Klinsmann said. “I’m sure they are alert about our forwards, our players, who can hurt them in a split second as well.”
And while it would be easy to look at this historic match as simply icing on the cake of a successful tournament, the US won’t be satisfied with just getting to a semifinal. Now it’s about taking the next step and changing their own narrative from plucky underdog to competitive peer.
It won’t be easy, but there won’t be any excuses either. This – a winner-take-all match against arguably the world’s top team and top player – is the sort of test Klinsmann’s been preparing his team for since he took the job in 2011.
The only question now is whether they’ll find a way to pass it.
“One of the biggest dangers you can face is contentedness,” he said. “Yes, we reached the goal we set for ourselves, which some people thought was too big of a goal. If you’re now one bit content, you’re going to [get taught a lesson]. … There’s no split-second to relax here. Actually, the opposite. You have to step it up even further.”