HOUSTON — Their work done for the round and the day, most U.S. national team players and coaches spent their Saturday evening in Houston tuning into a pair of Copa América Centenario quarterfinals. Some watched in restaurants while out to eat with teammates. Others watched in the hotel. Manager Jurgen Klinsmann and his staff swapped venues halfway through the opener, finishing dinner before heading to their conference room.
There was particular interest in that first game. Coaches and players watched Copa favorite Argentina play upstart Venezuela as tacticians, impending semifinal opponents and fans. It’s easy to imagine a couple of conflicting interests or emotions at play. An upset would present the U.S. with a clearer path to next weekend’s title game. An Argentina win would set the stage for a match that will be the Americans’ biggest on home soil in more than two decades: A showdown with the world’s No. 1 team and the sport’s best player with a spot in a meaningful final at stake.
“It goes back and forth,” U.S. defender Matt Besler said Sunday. “It’s always interesting watching a game like that when you know that you have to play the winner and that you’re through to the next round. There’s no use in trying to root for one team or the other because you have no control over it. So you really do try to sit back and enjoy it. Once Argentina went up 2–0, I think it was fun to watch Venezuela fight back and try to get that first goal, just because you want to see as competitive a match as possible.”
And maybe look for hints about what might or might not work?
“Exactly,” Besler said.
“You take it the way it is,” Klinsmann said. “You watch it. You see like every team in the world, strengths and weaknesses.”
It isn’t hard to be in awe when watching Lionel Messi & Co. It also came naturally to Klinsmann and his players to look for a vulnerability, a trend—anything that might make a difference in Tuesday’s semi at NRG Stadium. U.S. captain Michael Bradley called Messi “probably the best of all time” in one breath, then talked about how by keeping space to minimum and forcing him to dribble sideways or use his right foot, the Americans might “make the game hard on him and his team.”
That won’t be easy. It will require “the mentality and commitment to do it over and over and over again for 90 minutes,” Bradley said. Argentina is loaded. It’s 7-0-0 in 2016 and has scored a robust 14 goals in four Copa games.
The U.S. meanwhile, will play shorthanded. Klinsmann’s focus on chemistry and cohesion made the difference as the Americans rebounded from a loss to Colombia to win three straight. Now, significant changes are necessary thanks to the suspension of Jermaine Jones, Bobby Wood and Alejandro Bedoya (the first two are under protest).
The challenge is immense. But so is the stage and the opportunity. The run-up to Tuesday will be about finding the ideal balance between them.
“Venezuela had big chances to get back into the game and on another day, the whole thing can play out a little differently,” Bradley said. “We know [Argentina is] a very good team with a lot of very good players, but we don’t want to make this out to be mission impossible. It’s 90 minutes. It’s a semifinal. It’s a chance to get into a final and at the end of the day, whoever’s sharper, whoever has more guys play well, whoever has more guys who can compete at a high level and understand the moment, that’s typically what team is going to have a better chance to win.”
Klinsmann said understanding and then embracing the moment will be the key to U.S. success. He didn’t put much stock in the looming changes to his starting 11, saying that the coaches were addressing the suspensions shortly after the quarterfinal win over Ecuador.
“We think we have a very, very good idea and a plan how to approach this match,” he said.
Instead, success will depend on finding a way to match the commitment and composure that the “big teams” have in the biggest games. Champions use the stage to their advantage.
“A tournament is a showcase for every player around the world,” Klinsmann said. “Every game, even if it’s in the middle of night in Europe, 3 [a.m.] in Germany, for example, is televised. It’s recorded. The people watch it. Every club in Europe watches every game of Copa América. So the players understand now they really put themselves on a different platform with this tournament. In a tournament, like you saw [Saturday] night, anything is possible. Anything can happen. If you have a bad day, it can happen like it happened to Mexico. You have a good day, it happens to you like Chile. These are one-offs … The big teams around the world, they understand that. That’s why Spain, Argentina, and Holland and Germany, they are in the final fours because they turn it on after the group stage.”
Klinsmann’s goal is to infuse in the program what he called a “tournament culture,” one in which the stage motivates rather than overwhelms. Thursday’s win over Ecuador in Seattle was significant step. It marked only the third time that the U.S. advanced through a group stage and then beat a non-CONCACAF opponent in an elimination game. But Ecuador, while decent, is neither a current nor a traditional world power. Argentina stands at the summit of the sport. Since he took over, Klinsmann has been imploring U.S. players to target that summit.
“This is top notch. This is what you want to experience and it’s fun to watch. It’s impressive. But it’s also a huge motivation to take them on—to take on Argentina, definitely one of the best sides in the world, but to give them a real game. Give them a real fight. We are not scared of them at all,” Klinsmann said.
“This is a moment that I told the players [Saturday] here before we started training,” he added. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for you now. You got into the semifinal. You made yourselves proud. But now go for more. Be even hungrier. Be more aggressive, more determined than you ever were before. Add another 10% to what you did already. If everybody does that, we have a game with Argentina.”
The U.S. has ventured several times into the rarified air. There was the 2002 World Cup quarterfinal against Germany and semifinals at the 1930 World Cup, the 1995 Copa América and the 2009 Confederations Cup, where the Americans stunned top-ranked Spain and then led Brazil in the final. That win over La Furia Roja was one of three the U.S. has managed over FIFA’s current No. 1 (against eight defeats and a draw) and demonstrates that, as Klinsmann said, just about anything can happen over 90 given minutes. Tuesday offers that tantalizing prospect. Victory may be much harder to come by against Argentina, but Venezuela wouldn’t have presented this kind of opportunity.
“To play in the biggest games, to play in the toughest moments when everything’s on the line, that’s ultimately what we all want,” said Bradley, who is joined by Clint Dempsey as the only current U.S. players to have participated in the win over Spain.
“The chance to play in the semifinal of Copa America on your home soil against a big team like Argentina, its an incredible opportunity,” Bradley continued. “The longer you play, you realize that the opportunity to get to finals doesn’t come around every day. Obviously for us, the chance to play a big game against a very good team and get ourselves into a final, that’s an incredible amount of motivation in itself.”