If you haven't been tracking this year's Copa America tournament, now is certainly time to tune in, as action heats up for the semifinals. For the USA’s next trick, the team will try to beat the world’s best national team; absent of their best-coiffed (and key) players, the Yanks will face His Soccer Holiness Lionel Messi of Rosario. Or, as USA Today blasphemously referred to him as in a blooper of a tweet on Monday, Leonardo Messi. The suddenly soaring United States men’s national team has reached the semifinals of the one-off Copa America Centenario tournament — which will surely become a regular thing once somebody tallies up all the profits — but will face Argentina on Tuesday, the favorites and the world’s highest-ranked national team.
Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Ecuador, vanquished by the Yanks following an opening day loss to Colombia, are strong teams. But the Argentines are a team of an entirely different magnitude. Their lineup is a who’s-who from Europe’s biggest clubs. They may be the rich and famous of the sport, but above all, they’re famished for silverware. They’ve won nothing since 1993, an intolerably long drought for the formidable team. And they lost the 2014 World Cup final in extra time and the 2015 Copa America final on penalties. Ouch.
The Americans, under the long-embattled head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, are just happy to have made it this far. They want more, of course, but the general expectation was that they would have done well at this Copa if only they survived their group — let alone made it out of the quarterfinals. They’ve played better soccer than they have in years, defending cohesively and attacking with gusto and flair.
There is a reason, however, that the winners of these sorts of tournaments tend to have very deep teams. Take two yellow cards in your first four games, and you’re suspended for the fifth. This rule has claimed the hardworking breakout striker Bobby Wood and the magnificently maned midfielder Alejandro Bedoya — who represents half the man-bun constituency on the national team. Midfield bruiser Jermaine Jones, hailing from an impossibly handsome family, is also banned for a debatable straight red card against Ecuador.
The challenge, then, will be to somehow contain the world’s best player and the world’s best national team while being down three crucial players. There aren’t ready, like-for-like alternatives to Wood, Bedoya and Jones. This means Klinsmann, who isn’t a strong tactician to begin with, will have to contort his team into all kinds of new shapes and ploys to avoid getting overrun. He says at this point in major tournaments it all becomes mental. But when every matchup goes against you, that isn’t necessarily so.
Because in the end, for all the tactical complexity superimposed on it, soccer is a simple game. It’s ruled by just a few guiding principles: you want to put the ball in the goal more often than the other team; and Lionel Messi is the best at that. If the 28-year-old, five-time world player of the year does a few Messi-like things on Tuesday, the U.S. has no hope. If he doesn’t, it has half a hope. Tune in tonight at 9 p.m. EST to watch it all unfurl and find out.