HOUSTON — The first reporter asked about the “opportunity of playing a guy like Messi.” The second wondered whether going up against such a talented opponent would force the U.S. national team to alter its own style significantly. A subsequent question concerned the danger of focusing too closely on Lionel Messi “when they have a lot of guys who can hurt you.”
That’s when Michael Bradley said, “I think you guys are probably worrying more about Messi than we are.”
The mixed zone onslaught at NRG Stadium on Monday continued. Is there anything that can be learned from other teams that managed to slow down the five-time world player of the year? Does Bradley get “more excited” when facing the likes of Messi and Argentina? What challenges do Argentina’s other stars present? Have there been examples of the U.S. affording a big-name foe too much respect?
“In the last five minutes of me standing here, look at even just the questions that you guys all ask, right? So much of it is dictated from you guys,” Bradley, the U.S. captain, said in response to that final inquiry. “For us, again, it’s a game. It’s a semifinal against Argentina—11 of them against 11 of us. There’s a bunch of very good players on their team. We have a few good players as well and our mentality again is sure, on paper they might—they’re the team that everybody thinks is going to win. No problem. But ultimately when that whistle blows, it’s still 90 minutes of competition.”
Ninety minutes separate the U.S., winners of three in a row, from the Copa América Centenario final. That’s not a lot. But it’s 90 minutes against the world’s No. 1-ranked team, which is led by the sport’s best player. That represents an obstacle as tall as the massive retractable-roof stadium here in Houston where Tuesday’s sold-out showdown will take place. The Americans haven’t faced a hurdle like that since 2009. And they cleared it, shocking Spain, 2–0, in the Confederations Cup semi in South Africa.
If it happened once, U.S. players have to believe it can happen again.
“Just everybody’s going to have to be together, working hard to make it difficult on them,” said forward Clint Dempsey, who played (and scored) in that ’09 match, along with Bradley. “We’re going to have be sharper in front of goal to give ourselves a chance in this game. It’s just going to have to be a team’s best effort, and as the tournament’s gone on, I feel like we’ve grown in confidence and grown as a team in our belief. And hopefully we can use that to help keep pushing us forward.”
That increase in confidence, buoyed by their performance in do-or-die games against Paraguay and Ecuador, hasn’t diminished the Americans’ respect for Messi and Argentina. But it does mean they’re not obsessing, nor are they fatalistic. Tuesday’s result is partly up to them, and coach Jurgen Klinsmann promised that the U.S. intends to rely on the momentum generated at the Copa rather than feel cowed by a celebrated opponent. He’s not going to sacrifice the progress that’s been made, and slowing Messi is just part of the plan.
“We want to continue our path that we started a year ago,” the manager said. “We want to take the game to them as well. We want to keep a high line. We want to go eye-to-eye because we’ve done that tremendously well throughout this tournament and there’s no reason to change now the way to approach it, with all respect to the opponent.”
Klinsmann targeted the semifinals before the tournament. Despite that goal having been achieved, and despite the danger posed by La Albiceleste, he’s now imploring his players to take another step.
“We want to go further,” Klinsmann said. “We are very, very hungry for [Tuesday] night. Argentina, say it again, we can’t talk them bigger than they are. They are who they are. But we left Ecuador behind us. We left Paraguay behind us. We left Portugal two years ago behind us, and Ghana [at the World Cup]. Let’s give it a shot.”
He continued, “One of the biggest problems or dangers you can face is contentment. Yes, we reached the goal we set ourselves, which some people thought was too big. ... Now there’s no split second to relax here—actually the opposite. You have to step it up even further. You have to find within your own game another 10% somewhere and really make this your opportunity. Make it your moment. And it’s about confidence, about hunger, about the willingness to suffer and also to stick to your game plan. It’s about [saying], ‘Let’s go at them. Go forward now. We’re not here just to bunker in. We’re not going to play with 10 guys in the box.’ That’s not our game.”
Argentina isn’t the only problem facing the U.S. on Tuesday. The suspension of midfielders Alejandro Bedoya and Jermaine Jones and forward Bobby Wood will fundamentally alter the chemistry and complexion of a side that’s won three of four Copa América games. There was speculation on Monday, but no answers, about who will fill in where. The permutations are plentiful, and whoever starts will have their work cut out. Some must keep an eye and a body on Messi, Sergio Agüero and Argentina’s legion of danger men, while others will have to keep La Albiceleste honest in back.
“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,” Bradley said. “A big part of my game is also defending—making the game hard on the other team—no matter who you play against. So it’s always about trying to find that balance between attack and defense, between playing well myself but also making sure that they don’t play well. There’s a lot that goes into it.”
Bradley spoke this week about trying to force Messi to dribble toward the sideline or force him onto his right foot. That’s easier said than done, as his otherworldly statistics suggest. Klinsmann lauded his defense’s performance at this tournament—it’s yet to yield a goal from open play—and said his staff has “trained them through specific situations.” Central defender Geoff Cameron talked about limiting Messi’s time with the ball and the collective effort, from the backs to the forwards, that slowing Argentina will require.
They talk about it because they’re asked. But talking won’t solve the problem.
“It’s hard because you say you want to get pressure on Messi and not let him have time on the ball, but how do you do that?” asked defender Matt Besler, who may reprise his quarterfinal role at left back if Fabian Johnson moves up to midfield. “Even when guys step up to him and are right on him, he finds a way to wiggle out of something and then he’s able to get his head up and play some of those balls he’s played in this tournament. It’s a huge challenge—probably the biggest challenge for us as a defensive unit.”
It’s a challenge that Klinsmann and the U.S., if they eventually want to compete regularly with soccer’s most accomplished nations, will have to pass with increasing frequency. The Americans have beaten second-tier opposition like Ecuador and Paraguay—the sort that typically represent the first couple hurdles at a major tournament. Eventually and inevitably, an Argentina comes along. Klinsmann will have achieved his ambitious, long-term goal when the U.S. reaches and wins those games. He’ll have achieved his goal when the other team’s captain is being asked about the Americans. The next step is there for the taking in Houston.
“He’s the best player in the world,” Cameron said of Messi. “We know his creativity. We see his skill set. We’re going to try and limit his influence on the game. But a lot of people didn’t think we would be where we are today, [and] it’s hard to beat 11 guys. If 11 guys are on the same page and everybody’s working together as one, something could happen that’s special. We’ve been on a run so far and we want to keep it going.”