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HOUSTON — In the end, it was probably a good thing that the biggest U.S. English-language television audience for this Copa América Centenario came for the U.S.-Argentina semifinal.
No, not because domestic viewers got to see Argentina demolish the U.S. 4–0 in a game where the U.S. was outplayed and outclassed from the start.
But it *was* useful for other reasons. The NHL and NBA Finals were over, and for the first time this U.S. team’s tournament run truly had the full attention of the nation’s general interest sports fans.
And what did those fans get to see on Tuesday? For starters, they saw how thrilling this sport can be when a team—Argentina, in this case—plays near the limits of its vast capabilities. They witnessed the world’s best player, Lionel Messi, near the height of his powers, in his prime and fully rested. And they saw one of the greatest free kicks you’ll ever behold.
Leave it to Messi to break Gabriel Batistuta’s all-time Argentine goals record with a free kick so sublime that it almost brought you to tears, no matter which team you were cheering for. Messi had already converted a high-degree-of-difficulty free kick against Panama earlier in the tournament, but this one from around 25 yards was even better: a swerving missile hit with his magical left foot that couldn’t have been placed in the upper corner any better if you were doing it with your hands from five feet away.
It was as if Messi had been listening to the chatter among the world’s soccer fans about France’s Dimitri Payet becoming perhaps the best free-kick taker in the world today. Not so fast, Dimitri: Messi has already hit two all-timers in this tournament, proving that he remains very much in the conversation.
The Argentines were in a different class all night. Their speed of play and thought kept the attack humming against a U.S. team that had to defend for so much of the game, and whenever the Argentines lost the ball they regained it back almost immediately with suffocating pressure defense. Too many U.S. players looked intimidated by the Argentines. And while that’s not as big an offense as the Mexican players quitting against Chile last Saturday, it’s also true that the best U.S. teams of the past were never intimidated by anyone.
• LOOK: Frame-by-frame breakdown of Messi’s amazing free-kick goal
“I think it had to do a bit with the early [third-minute] goal,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said when I asked him about it. “But then you were trying to scream into the field: Go at them! Go! Become physical! Step on their toes! I think tonight you could clearly see in that moment once we were down 1–0 we had far too much respect. They smell that. They feel that. And they start to play their game with all the quality they have.
“After that early goal, I think our players could feel [Argentina’s] were just probably in every position on the field just better than we are.”
All of which is another reason why it was good to have a large TV audience for this U.S. defeat. The gap is significant right now between the U.S. and world powerhouses like Argentina, and it helps everyone to understand just how much needs to be done for the U.S. to make up that difference.
There’s nothing wrong with talking about the growth of U.S. soccer and setting ambitious goals of competing toe-to-toe with the world’s best and winning a World Cup sometime in our lifetime. But every once in a while it doesn’t hurt to get “a lesson,” as Klinsmann repeatedly called it, from a team like Argentina that as a nation has reached those heights.
It’s painful if you’re a U.S. fan, but it’s also useful. On its best night, the U.S. can give Argentina a game. Maybe even win one once out of 10 or 15 times. But there were plenty of individual disappointments on the U.S. side on Tuesday that made you say: Man, this needs to get better the next time a similar opportunity comes along.
• Klinsmann himself needs to practice what he preaches. He may have been screaming for his guys to play with more confidence, but the lineup he chose could have shown some of that confidence as well. Like-for-like continuity can be a worthwhile approach sometimes, but playing Chris Wondolowski up top didn’t exactly scream “going for it.” In the end, it would have made more sense to put Gyasi Zardes in that position—not least because Zardes was one player who *did* play with confidence on Tuesday—and have Fabian Johnson at left midfield in front of Matt Besler at left back.
• Protect the ball. This is part of being intimidated, but the U.S.’s poise when it won the ball from Argentina was often poor. Some of that had to do with the Argentines and their pressure defense, of course, but a large number of the U.S.’s giveaways were unforced.
• Don’t go half-way. The U.S. needed to have players go into challenges fully committed and take no half-measures. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan was hardly the only player at fault on the first Argentine goal—a series of missteps led to it, including conceding the corner itself—but Guzan needed to either rush out and get to the ball or he needed to stay on his line. Being in no-man’s land was deadly.
WATCH: Full highlights from Argentina's romp over the USA
The U.S. has done some good things in this Copa América. In a tournament on home soil, it beat Costa Rica, Paraguay and Ecuador, three teams that deserve respect. But it also lost to Argentina and Colombia, which makes it hard to argue the U.S. beat any teams it wasn’t expected to topple.
The gap is still significant, and while it’s difficult to swallow when you lose 4–0 at home, it’s also information that can be used to make yourself better in the long run.