On July 14, 1995, the United States men's national team did something they hadn't done in 45 years: beat a team ranked in the top 10 of the Elo Ratings in an official competition. The previous time had been the famous (and still faintly unbelievable) 1-0 win over England in the 1950 World Cup; this time it was against Argentina, then sixth in the world and the two-time defending Copa America champions at the 1995 Copa America. The US ground them into dust, not just winning but dominating to the tune of 3-0.
Steve Sampson was the coach at that time, and while he's best remembered for the drama leading up to the 1998 World Cup and faceplant at the tournament itself, he had a good first year in charge – mostly because he freed his US team of their uber-defensive stance and allowed them to attack. That Copa America run (a semifinal appearance) was the payoff, and for all of the faults of Sampson's tenure, he established a worthy precedent in terms of results.
Because of that win, beating a top 10 in a meaningful game was no longer a dream reserved for other, "bigger" soccer nations. It was something the US could do.
And so they did. Sampson's successor, Bruce Arena, led his team to two triumphs over top 10 teams in official games. The first game in July of 1999 at the Confederations Cup, when what was more or less a US "B" team kicked chunks out of eighth-rated Germany in a 2-0 win. The second was the opener of the 2002 World Cup, when the US beat sixth-rated Portugal 3-2.
It would be seven more years before the US would claim their next top 10 scalp. It was 2009 in South Africa, and Spain came into the semifinals of the Confederations Cup on a 37-game unbeaten run. It was ended by the power of Jozy Altidore and the poaching of Clint Dempsey, as Bob Bradley's team took a 2-0 win before heading into the finals and suffering a heartbreaking 3-2 loss to Brazil.
Elo Ratings aren't everything, but they're illustrative of what's truly a big win:
The US haven't beaten a top 10 team in an official game since that win over Spain seven years ago, despite several chances. Bradley's team drew England in the 2010 World Cup, while current head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's team lost to Belgium and Germany, and drew Portugal at the 2014 version of that tournament.
Each of the previous three coaches – Sampson, Arena, Bradley – have claimed at least one top 10 scalp. Klinsmann has a chance to keep that going on Tuesday night against Argentina (9pm ET; FS1 | Univision | UDN), the No. 1 rated team in the current rankings.
It's a big task. But it's important that the fanbase understands that the US have a history of winning games like this. Portraying this group as no-hopers, or minnows who couldn't possibly spring the upset, is to ignore history.
The big issue facing the US – other than dealing with Argentina – is how to plug three holes in the lineup: midfielders Jermaine Jones and Alejandro Bedoya, and striker Bobby Wood. Jones is suspended for a straight red card, while Bedoya and Wood are out via yellow card accumulation.
Here is what I would do:
(h/t to AmericanSoccerNow for the lineup generator)
The big changes are threefold: First, Nagbe comes into central midfield as a straight swap for Jones. Second, Matt Besler keeps his spot at left back and, with DeAndre Yedlin's return, Fabian Johnson is allowed to push up into his natural left winger role. Third, Wood's absence means Gyasi Zardes gets to move up top and play his natural center forward role.
The key to all this is, in my view, keeping the triangle of Michael Bradley, Geoff Cameron and John Brooks together. The US defense has been the tournament's best from open play, and it all starts from that spine. Breaking it up would be a mistake.
Obviously this would be a big ask of Nagbe in particular. He has the least experience and is being put into a high-leverage spot. But he also has the most individual talent on the team, and is surrounded by veterans who will not wilt (it's time we consider Zardes, who'll pick up his 30th cap, a veteran).
Klinsmann, however, has usually defaulted toward more defensive XIs when pushed. So here's my best guess as what he'll do:
The idea would be that adding another defensive midfielder in Perry Kitchen would give the US more cushion against an attack that features the likes of Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero.
This is also a lineup that Klinsmann wouldn't hesitate to push into a 4-4-2, shuttling Kitchen out wide to the right and flipping Zusi to the left while Zardes goes up top. Kitchen doesn't play right midfield for his club team and never really has, but Klinsmann used him there in the friendlies ahead of this tournament, and in past camps.
It's definitely not what I'd do. Kitchen is a good player with a big future, but three D-mids is two too many no matter what spots they're playing, and one Nagbe – a creative attacker whose on-the-ball skills can change the tempo of the game as well as giving the US dangerous set-pieces – could prove a crucial addition:
To me the 2 key players for the States tomorrow are Yedlin & Nagbe. Nagbe has to play with Wood out. Or else no one is holding up the ball.— Matthew Tomaszewicz (@shinguardian) June 21, 2016
What they'll try to do
High pressure and split the A-gap
Argentina have, in Messi, the greatest player in the world and the greatest player I've ever seen. As Jimmy Conrad said on Monday's ExtraTime Radio: A) You have to send two players at Messi at all times, and B) The first guy is always going to get beat. His job isn't to win the ball, but to turn Messi toward the second defender and force him to play sideways.
It's easier said than done. Here's a 6-minute compilation of him just ruining defenders.
There's danger in Jimmy's strategy, however, because in Argentina's 4-3-3 Messi is allowed to drift wherever he wants. Sometimes that means picking the ball up in the final third; other times, it means drifting deep and using that magical left foot of his to spray passes all over the field; and others still, it means hugging the right touchline and drawing the defense toward him, which allows the rest of Argentina's attackers to have an even numbers situation in the final third.
And when that happens, this happens:
That's one of the best goals of the tournament, and an illustration of how crucial it is to pressure Messi and refuse to let him pick his passes. It's also an illustration of the run Higuain most loves to make – splitting the "A Gap" between the two central defenders, as opposed to the more fashionable run these days of splitting the B Gaps between defender and fullback.
How to stop it
Time the line, bump and run
If there's been one weakness of the Brooks/Cameron pairing so far, it's been a slight tendency to drop their line a little too far and give smart forwards a chance to beat the trap. They need to be better at it than Venezuela were above – an issue of both shape and communication. There is also the issue of simply laying a body on Higuain (or Aguero) at the start of the run, slowing them just enough to break any attacking rhythm.
Of course, it's not like Messi and the center forwards are the only dangers here. One of Erik Lamela, Ezequiel Lavezzi or maybe even Javier Pastore will start on the left wing to provide some attacking balance, and there's the chance that Angel Di Maria is healthy enough to make a cameo. Their attack is stacked and filthy even with Nico Gaitan suspended, and what makes them so good isn't just their talent, but their relentless pressure starting from the forward line. They operate as a unit and punish turnovers of the sort the US committed in bunches way back in the tournament's first game, against Colombia.
One more note: The refs allowed Venezuela to kick the holy hell out of Messi. If Tuesday's game is officiated in the same way, that is an advantage for the US.
What we'll do
Occupy central defenders and play for knockdowns by getting pressure up the right side
By the numbers, Argentina have been the world's best defensive team over the past 12 months, but by the eye test they have some weaknesses. Venezuela lost 4-1, sure, but not for lack of chances – they were particularly effective on the break, especially up the right-hand side (though it's worth noting that Salomon Rondon's goal came via service from the left).
Getting Yedlin forward on the overlap, then, is key. He's proven his ability to hit the final ball if given the option to, and Argentina simply don't have any athletes that can keep up with him. Speed is a weapon in this game.
And this is where we go back to the lineups above, and why I think Zardes needs to start. Yes, he can be wildly frustrating with his reactive runs, as here:
Zardes waits til the pass is made, and then makes the run instead of starting the run early in order to make the pass possible. Want to know why Robbie Keane spends so many Galaxy games gesturing angrily in Gyasi's direction? There you go.
Simple is good, especially in a two-forward lineup that lacks a genius No. 10:
I'm not saying that the US should spend all game lumping long balls to his noggin. But I'm saying if they do it well a few times, Dempsey may be able to get on the ball in good spots and make something happen. And if the US present that as a threat, it forces the Argentine defense to honor it, and that in turn forces Javier Mascherano, their defensive midfielder, to drop deeper and protect the backline instead of stepping forward into the play and dictating the game.
I really do think Zardes has to start up top in this one. Dempsey as a lone forward, even with Zardes on one wing and, say, Christian Pulisic on the other, is a recipe for loneliness. The US will still create some chances because the talent is there, but my guess is they'll look a lot like this:
No support is no support, and the lack of it will mean that Argentina get to throw numbers forward more aggressively and suffocate the US with that press.
Also: No support means less interplay in the final third, and that means fewer set piece opportunities. And if I were a betting man, I'd wager that most of the US danger tonight comes from restarts.
How they'll solve it
Pin Yedlin and harass the deep-lying midfielders
Colombia came up with a pretty great blueprint for teams to use against the US in their 2-0 win. Left winger Edwin Cardona played higher and wider than normal, and in so doing basically eliminated Yedlin as a two-way player – he didn't start overlapping until about the 75th minute, at which point it was long past desperation time. Look for Lamela or Lavezzi or whoever happens to be over there for Tata Martino to try to replicate that performance.
The other thing Colombia did well was to get to Bradley early and force him to play square or backwards. They were aided by what I think even Bradley would admit was a subpar performance on his part, and this is where the whole "continuity" aspect comes in: Bad passes aren't all necessarily because of bad touches. Bad passes often happen because smart teams force outlets into spots where they know they can apply immediate pressure, where they can limit outlets, and where they can force turnovers that become goals. They set up the chess board as they want, then force you to play on their terms.
Under Klinsmann the US have struggled with teams like that in official games, with the first 30 minutes against Colombia being a good example. To be fair, the US were better in the second half against an Ecuador team that was applying high pressure in the quarterfinals, but Ecuador aren't a natural or particularly polished pressing team (they're defined by their ability to counterattack); Argentina are, even if the US have had two more days of rest to recharge.
What's it mean for the US?
A chance to beat the world's No. 1 team, featuring the best human being ever to kick a soccer ball, at home, and advance to the final of a major competition. It's not "World Cup" big, but it's the next step down. Did you see James Rodriguez's tears of joy the other day? Or the ruthlessness with which Chile dispatched hapless Mexico? This game – this tournament – means a lot to the world's best players.
It should mean a lot to the US as well. Finally settling on a starting central defense, putting Bradley in his correct spot and finding a preferred formation – all while making it to the semifinals – means this tournament is already a success for the US.
One more win, and it becomes legendary. The Yanks have done it before, and it can be done again.