After a surprise run to the Group A title and a hard-fought quarterfinal win over Ecuador, the US national team will take their shot at the world’s best on Tuesday, when they face Leo Messi and Argentina in the Copa America Centenario semifinals.
The USMNT are riding high heading into the match in Houston, having won three matches in a row after dropping their group stage opener to Colombia way back on June 3. They’re hot, but Argentina are hotter. La Albiceleste have been the best team in the tournament, racking up a perfect 4-0-0 record and outscoring their opponents 14-2.
Suspensions lead to questions
If the US are to pull the upset on Tuesday, they’ll have to do it without three of their most important players. Midfielders Jermaine Jones (red card) and Alejandro Bedoya (yellow card accumulation) and forward Bobby Wood (yellow card accumulation) will all miss Tuesday’s match after running into disciplinary issues against Ecuador. U.S. Soccer's appeal of the Jones and Wood cards was rejected on Sunday.
All three players had started all four of the US’s Copa America matches, and their absence leaves Jurgen Klinsmann with some difficult lineup questions. Will he replace Wood with another center forward or revert to a 4-3-3 formation? Could we see young guns Darlington Nagbe or Christian Pulisic in the midfield, or will veterans Kyle Beckerman and Graham Zusi get the nod?
How Klinsmann lines them up on Tuesday could go a long way toward determining the result. If he gets the calculus right, the US could have a shot at shocking Argentina. If not? Things could get ugly.
US on the brink of history
A win on Tuesday would be a massive achievement for the US. Excluding the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the US have only made one prior appearance in the final of a major international tournament. That came back in 2009, when the USMNT shocked the world by defeating Spain 2-0 in the Confederations Cup semifinals before losing a 3-2 heartbreaker to Brazil in the title game.
The Americans do have some experience in the Copa America semis, having made it to the final four of the 1995 tournament. They couldn’t pull off a win in that match, falling 1-0 to Brazil in Uruguay before dropping the third-place match to Colombia to close the tournament.
Leo Messi entered this tournament under a bit of a cloud: Would he be healthy after suffering a back injury against Honduras on May 27? Would he be focused on the tournament while dealing with a tax fraud case that had him in a Catalonia court room on June 2?
So far, the answers are clear: Yes and yes.
Despite sitting out their opener against Chile and not starting until Friday’s quarterfinal win over Venezuela, Messi has been his magical self in the Copa. The Barcelona superstar has been the man of the tournament, currently sitting in second in the competition with four goals and adding a pair of assists in just 164 minutes of action.
Now, only one question remains: Can Messi lead Argentina, who lost in the final of the 2014 World Cup and 2015 Copa America, to their first major tournament title in 23 years?