Look at that, we made the semifinals! Since I think the U.S. has now achieved exactly what the expectation should have been for the Copa America, they are playing with house money. The match against Ecuador was the ideal version of the current USMNT. The first half showcased the evolution of the team, as they did well in both controlling the pace, stringing together excellent passing sequences, and looking dangerous in controlled attacking moves. It all led to a Clint Dempsey goal that was very deserved. The second half, after absolute chaos resulted in two red cards, was a reemergence of the best of the older U.S. style of play, full of grit and fight, which also gave us a Dempsey-involved goal (albeit, in a more ugly fashion).
The result was 2-1 for the U.S. and the reward is a trip to Houston to face the best team in the tournament, Argentina. Unfortunately, the cost was three players suspended, with Jermaine Jones out as punishment for his red card and Bobby Woods and Alejandro Bedoya both riding pine for yellow card accumulation. Jurgen Klinsmann will be forced to significantly alter his starting 11 for the first time this tournament and his final decision will instantly tell us how he views this game.
If Klinsmann rolls out a starting lineup that includes Christian Pulisic or Darlington Nagbe, it means the U.S. are going to try to go toe-to-toe with Argentina and Klinsmann believes he has nothing to lose. On the other hand, if the name Perry Kitchen or Kyle Beckerman is among the starters, this will be a U.S. team looking to bunker in and survive a Lionel Messi-led attack, with a belief in advancing. If Klinsmann includes Graham Zusi (it’s going to happen), just know Sean Demetrakis will be very happy and I will be very annoyed that Bedoya-lite is still with this team.
In replacing the suspended players, realistically I expect the U.S. to come out in a 4-4-2 with the following starting 11:
Yedlin- Cameron – Brooks – Besler
Zusi- Bradley – Beckerman – Johnson
Zardes – Dempsey
Matt Besler performed extremely well at left back against Ecuador, operating essentially as a third centerback and allowing the U.S. to move forward in a 3-5-2 formation in the first half. In this game, he will be invaluable, since Messi often looks for space up the right-flank, and it allows Fabian Johnson to provide additional protection. Meanwhile, Michael Bradley and Beckerman will provide cover for the defense, leaving Dempsey to drop into the attacking midfield and Zardes alone up top to run onto cleared balls. If they stick with that defensive approach, this is essentially a 4-4-1-1, and would offer limited options going forward except a quick counter. Let it be known, though, that if I had it my way for this lineup: Pulisic would replace Zusi, Kitchen would replace Beckerman, Johnson would return to right back and Nagbe would come on to try to let the U.S. outrun and outpass Argentina. Dream big.
While I would love to see the U.S. go for broke, in truth, I expect them to stick with a defensive mindset. Facing Messi means everyone on the field, starting with Zardes and Dempsey up top, has to be involved in making it as difficult as possible for him to turn and create chances. It still will not be enough and Messi will have his moments, but the best plan the U.S. can implement to win is to simply limit how many times he can display his brilliance and hope the rest of the Argentina team has an off day.
Against Venezuela, Argentina casually trotted out a lineup of Romero, Rojo, Otamendi, Funes Mori, Mercado, Fernandez, Mascherano, Banega, Gaitan, Higuain, Messi. That means they left players like Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, and Lautaro Acosta on the bench. First off, that’s just unfair to have so much talent on your team. Secondly, it means that the U.S. cannot possibly account for all of the attacking options they will face. Instead, they will have to settle for limiting any clean looks and defend like hell. If Brad Guzan could also recreate the Tim Howard-vs-Belgium performance, that would be immensely helpful.
The path to victory for the USMNT is either a successful defensive campaign with a lightning strike counterattack goal, or to hold on for a draw in the first ninety minutes and taking advantage of penalty kicks. Neither of these are great or likely options, but for all the progress the U.S. has shown throughout this tournament, Argentina is still a class (or two) above. That’s okay though, to have made it this far should elicit pride from players and fans alike, regardless of the outcome of this game. And if Klinsmann elects to come out guns blazing, all the better. On a personal note, I live in a house-divided for this game, with my fiance an Argentinian Messi-fanatic. In other words, if the U.S. does manage a win, can someone put me up for a few nights?
Photo Credit: Tim Hawk | For NJ.com