American home advantage counted for nothing against Lionel Messi’s brilliance as Argentina progressed serenely to the final of the Copa América Centenario, 4-0, in a match the favorites controlled from start to finish.
Argentina will meet Chile or Colombia, who play in Chicago on Wednesday night. And they will fear neither in Sunday’s showpiece as they look to win a first major title since they claimed the Copa in 1993.
If Messi was busy meeting expectations, so, in their own ineffectual way, were the US. The perceived inconsistency in results under Jurgen Klinsmann is perhaps quite the reverse: in competitive games the US typically beat the sides you’d expect them to beat, but lose to higher-ranked opposition. As such, how deep they go into a major tournament is more about the luck of the draw than how they perform.
Reaching the semi-final was a satisfactory outcome for the hosts and there is no shame in losing to an Argentina team that may currently be the best side on the planet; it certainly has the finest player wearing the captain’s armband.
Still, almost straight from the first whistle there was never any sense that Klinsmann’s men might subvert their underdog status, provide inspiration as well as perspiration and achieve something amazing. Never any sense that the US would be so organised, or so bloody-minded, or so propelled by the home crowd, that they would deliver 90 minutes of stunning overachievement. The US did manage something remarkable, though: they failed to muster a shot in the match, on or off target.
In the Americans’ defense, the underdogs were under strength. A coach who has repeatedly questioned whether the standard of MLS is high enough to develop talent capable of beating the world’s best selected a starting XI with six MLS-based players.
Bobby Wood, Alejandro Bedoya, and perhaps most crucially, the midfield dynamo Jermaine Jones, were all suspended, their absences a blow given the inferior quality of their replacements and Klinsmann’s preference for a settled line-up in this tournament, even if tactically the side has oscillated between a 4-3-3 and 4-4-2.
In came Kyle Beckerman, a solid shield for Real Salt Lake; another experienced MLS man, the winger Graham Zusi; and Chris Wondolowski, 33 years old but – as ever – in fine scoring form for the San Jose Earthquakes. Still, he is something of an avatar for the gap between MLS and top-level international competition, and here he was only notable for inadvertently enabling a stunning goal for the other side.
These were his most important minutes for the national team since his miss late in the second half of the 2014 World Cup game against Belgium, which the US ultimately lost after extra time. It was a traumatizing moment for one of the best finishers in the American game, even if it ended up being overshadowed by the positive narrative of Tim Howard’s goalkeeping heroics.
Opting against beginning with younger, faster but highly inexperienced choices in Christian Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe, it was a contentious act of faith in a veteran from the coach who infamously left the nation’s best-ever player, Landon Donovan, off the roster for the Brazil World Cup while selecting an almost untried 18-year-old, Julian Green.
How many chances, really, was Wondolowski ever likely to get on Tuesday? With Clint Dempsey also starting, 33-year-old strikers were tasked with exploiting perhaps Argentina’s only potential weakness, central defence. If that seemed worrying against such fluid and fast opponents, Dempsey at least entered the night in good form, with his teammates also exuding increasing levels of confidence.
After a flaccid opening-night loss to Colombia, the US got here by beating Costa Rica and Paraguay, then Ecuador in the quarter-finals, while Argentina battled to a 2-1 win over Chile then glided past Panama, Bolivia and Venezuela.
Messi, his pre-tournament back problems all but forgotten, entered the game with four goals in the Copa, including one in the 4-1 quarter-final win over Venezuela that was his 54th international strike, tying Gabriel Batistuta’s Argentina record.
Though perhaps two-thirds of the crowd was clad in red, white and blue, judging by decibel level during the pre-match line-up announcement the Barcelona man was easily the most popular player in the arena.
It said something about the Americans’ stiff start and Argentina’s instant dominance that the opening goal only took three minutes and yet it felt like it was coming. Ezequiel Lavezzi was left free to connect with an impudent sand-wedge of a chip over the defence by Messi and looped a header over an inert Brad Guzan, his reactions slower than airplane wi-fi.
Some sharp interplay five minutes later led to a good chance for Messi, who shot over the bar. He then forced a save from Guzan after a barnstorming run through the core of the defence.
On his first start since the Gold Cup 11 months ago, Wondolowski’s sole memorable contribution in the first half was a 31st-minute foul for which he was yellow-carded, just outside the US’s penalty area, leading to Argentina’s second goal.
From the free kick, Messi bent his shot over the wall and beyond Guzan’s dive into the far top corner of the net. Not a bad way to stand alone as his country’s all-time top goalscorer.
There was no attempt at deception, no cluster of players standing around the ball threatening trickery. Everyone knew it would be Messi. It was striker versus goalkeeper, mano a mano. It was hard to fault Guzan’s positioning or dive; the shot was, quite simply, unstoppable.
Wondolowski was replaced by Pulisic at half time but the contest was finished four minutes after the restart. Gonzalo Higuaín stole behind the back line and connected with a cross, but though Guzan saved the shot, the forward scored on the rebound.
There was a worrying and freakish injury in the 62nd minute and Lavezzi fell backwards over a perimeter advertising board near the halfway line as he tried to control a high ball, somersaulting and landing awkwardly. He was taken away on a stretcher with what appeared to be a wrist injury.
Despite the spirited running of Gyasi Zardes, Argentina continued to look the more likely side to score, and Messi forced a decent low save from Guzan inside the last ten minutes. The goalkeeper was powerless to stop the fourth in the 86th minute, however, as Messi gorged on a defensive blunder and crossed to give Higuaín an easy finish.
Without the thrill of a surprise result, at least there was pleasure for neutrals in the predictable: Messi being Messi.
This article was written by Tom Dart at NRG Stadium in Houston, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 22nd June 2016 04.20 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010