An editorial by Justin Cirillo
The United States Men’s Soccer Team had a mostly successful campaign in the Copa America. That was until Lionel Messi and the 2014 World Cup runners-up Argentina played them and left no doubt about which side was better. Argentina scored in the fourth minute and never looked back on their way to a 4-0 route of the US at NRG Stadium in Houston on Tuesday night. Messi, who continues to be the most impressive player at the tournament (if not in all the world at the moment), assisted on two goals and scored from a free kick that he could not have hand-placed in a better spot.
It was undoubtedly the biggest soccer match that the United States had hosted since their defeat to Brazil in the 1994 World Cup knockout stage. It will be one that leaves the team and its fans with a bitter taste.
Soccer, much like in American football, is a game where the scoreline often does not reflect the performance. You can play like crap for 90 minutes, but because “football is football” you can squeak away with a victory or a draw. You can also play as well as Argentina did last night, and find yourself coming away with nothing. But not when you play as badly as the USA did and as well as Argentina, the more technically talented side, did.
The scoreline was bad enough; the performance was heartbreaking.
There were many issues last night with the United States side. It started when keeper Brad Guzan got caught in no-man’s land to allow Argentina to score first. The Aston Villa goalie came off his line to try to play a lobbed pass for Ezequiel Lavezzi, but pulled up and left the striker with far too much space. Lavezzi headed it past Guzan, who would have been in good position to make the stop had he stayed on his line, for the opening goal.
The US did try to respond, but their midfielders were not capable of holding onto the ball. In a game where the US was out-possessed 68%-32% the US were going to need Argentina to make a mistake in order to score. That didn’t happen and it was because the US treated with Argentina with too much respect. The US did not attempt to press Argentina’s back line, which is odd considering that is a strength of Chris Wondolowski (starting in place of suspended Bobby Wood). After 20 minutes, it was clear that if the US was going to score, they were going to have to force Argentina into a mistake.
Defensively, it’s hard to be too critical especially considering that the US had to chase the game once they went 2-0 down. One of the most outstanding players in the tournament had been American defender John Brooks. Overall, the back line for the US had been solid in the Copa America, with their physical play being too much for attacking players to deal with. Last night, Argentina’s technical ability on the ball and their ability to pick out the right pass in the blink of an eye shredded that defense.
What does this game say about the USMNT? That it still has a long way to go. Currently, they’re in sports purgatory – they are an average team. They are good enough to no longer be a laughing stock. You don’t advance to a Cup semi-final in any tournament without having good qualities. In this tournament they showed that when they play up to their levels, they are the best team in CONCACAF. They smoked Costa Rica 4-0, a team that advanced to the World Cup Quarterfinals in 2014. They killed off Paraguay after being reduced to 10 men in the second half. They managed to beat a decent Ecuador side last week. Yes, they got ripped apart by the best team in the world, but Mexico got ripped apart 7-0 by Chile, a side nowhere near the level that Argentina is at.
The problem facing Jurgen Klinsmann (who with this tournament run has surely quieted any thoughts about him getting the sack) now is can the younger players produce. 17 year-old Borussia Dortmund mid-fielder Christian Pulisic subbed on at the beginning of the second half but made no impact on the game. Darlington Nagbe subbed on later in the second half to the same effect. DeAndre Yedlin and Brooks, the former for his pace and the latter for his impressive display as a centerback, were two bright spots for a back line that had come into the tournament playing rather badly.
Bobby Wood showed exceptional promise on the wing, and it would have been interesting to see how he would have fared against Argentina, although it probably would have been akin to re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
The United States will play the loser of Colombia vs. Chile on Saturday afternoon in the third-place game. It’s another good test against a very good team, no matter who they play. Colombia, as you remember, defeated the US 2-0 to commence the tournament. After that, the United States has two more matches in the current World Cup 2018 qualifying round against St. Vincent and the Grenadines (which is not a gospel choir group, but a small nation a few hundred miles north from the shores of Venezuela) and Trinidad and Tobago. The US should have no trouble against St. Vincent, but they drew against Trinidad and Tobago down in the Caribbean in November. Still, the US sits in second place in their group, and barring a calamity will advance to the final stage of qualifying.
Still, the one regret about this tournament was the lack of seeing Pulisic and Nagbe. Pulisic plays in one of the most competitive leagues in Europe, and has impressed everyone at Dortmund. Nagbe is one of the best players in the MLS, for however much that is worth. And then there’s this point from Alexi Lalas, which couldn’t be more true.
If the United States wants to become a real powerhouse in global football, then we need to build up the quality in our own domestic leagues (yes, the MLS but also the NASL and USL), begin to move to making the MLS a promotion/relegation league like every other serious soccer country, and convince our best young athletes that being the next Clint Dempsey can be as amazing as being the next Mike Trout. The 4-0 loss will sting for a while, but there’s still reasons to be excited.