It’s the United States vs. Argentina in Tuesday’s Copa América semifinal in Houston after the Argentines beat Venezuela 4-1 on Saturday in Foxborough, Mass., behind two goals from Gonzalo Higuaín, one from Lionel Messi (which tied Argentina's all-time record) and one from Erik Lamela. Venezuela had a chance to get back in their quarterfinal just before halftime, but a failed Panenka attempt on a penalty kick thwarted the Vinotino's momentum, and Argentina rolled to the result.
How will the U.S. overcome three suspensions (to Jermaine Jones, Bobby Wood and Alejandro Bedoya) and stack up against the No. 1-ranked team in the world? That's one of the big questions entering Tuesday's showdown.
Let’s break it down:
Kyle Beckerman has to come up huge
Let’s be honest: Limiting Messi will have to be a collective defensive effort by the U.S., but Beckerman in particular is going to have to play the game of his life if he fills in for Jones as expected.
Maybe that means having Beckerman man-mark Messi, maybe not. But the U.S. can’t be chasing shadows against the best player in the world, one who’s in terrific form during this Copa América.
It’ll be interesting to see whether the referee allows the U.S. to be as physical with Messi as Venezuela was allowed to be on Saturday. But having a pure defensive midfielder like Beckerman involved might actually be preferable to Jones, who has a tendency to leave his defensive duties. Defense has been a huge strong suit for the U.S. in this tournament, though, so don’t just assume that Argentina will break down the Americans that easily.
Argentina’s back line has to be tested
The big question about Argentina coming into the tournament was its central defense pairing of Nicolás Otamendi and Ramiro Funes Mori, who didn’t exactly light up the Premier League this past season with Manchester City and Everton, respectively. The pair has been better than expected in the Copa, but this is still the weak link of Argentina.
Just look at the goal scored by Venezuela’s Salomón Rondón, who split the two center backs for a header that looked a lot like Clint Dempsey’s strike against Ecuador. Whether it’s Gyasi Zardes or Chris Wondolowski, whoever replaces the suspended Wood up top needs to stretch the defense the way Wood has during this tournament. That would give Dempsey some necessary space to keep doing what he’s done so well in this tournament.
The U.S. has to believe
Look, Argentina is going to be heavily favored here. But the U.S. has to stay confident even when it looks across at kickoff and sees the famous Albiceleste stripes and Messi in the No. 10 jersey. The talent on this Argentina team is formidable, but there’s a reason so many supremely talented Argentine teams have gone without a major senior trophy since 1993.
If the U.S. can stay in the game and cause some doubt to creep into the Argentine psyche, the ingredients are there for an upset on home soil in front of a sellout crowd at Houston’s NRG Stadium. It’s going to require a Herculean effort, though, and a serious test of the U.S.’s depth. That said, few people thought the U.S. could make the semifinals. Even fewer will think it can reach the final.
Last time they met: March 26, 2011
Juan Agudelo's equalizer forced a 1-1 draw at MetLife Stadium–the site of the Copa America Centenario final. One of them will return.