By Sean Hartnett
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The United States faces a monumental task on Tuesday in the Copa America semifinals against powerhouse Argentina.READ MORE: Pride Month: NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project 'Making An Invisible History Visible'
Shorthanded due to suspensions to starting XI regulars Bobby Wood, Jermaine Jones and Alejandro Bedoya, the Americans’ resiliency and depth will be put to the ultimate test against the star-studded Argentines.
Sitting at No. 1 in the FIFA world rankings, Argentina is led by five-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi. No player in the world can tear a defense to shreds quite like the Barcelona ace, who slaloms and weaves through opponents as if they’re not even there. His ability to change pace, avoid tackles and maintain control while being hacked by defenders makes him the most elusive player on the planet. His eye for goal is unrivaled.
Forget about contemporary rival Cristiano Ronaldo or all-time legends Pele, Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff — Messi is in a class of his own as the unequivocal greatest footballer of all-time. What is sometimes overlooked about Messi’s game is how unselfish he is on the pitch. It’s his giving mentality that allowed Barcelona teammate Luis Suarez to win the Pichichi Trophy as top La Liga scorer.
Messi will find his teammates with deft flicks when they discover a pocket of space. To open the scoring in Argentina’s 4-1 quarterfinal victory over Venezuela, he chipped a ridiculous pass from a wide position directly to the feet of teammate Gonzalo Higuain.
Higuain is a tremendous finisher, scoring 36 goals in 35 Serie A games for Napoli. Yet, it’s not all about Messi and Higuain’s brilliance. Argentina entered Copa America Cenentenario as heavy favorites given its supreme depth. It’s a scary prospect for any opponent when head coach Gerardo Martino can summon Kun Aguero, Erik Lamela and Javier Pastore from the bench.
Key to Argentina’s success is Ever Banega, who pulls the strings from midfield and excels at winning back possession. Veteran Javier Mascherano is tenacious, fearsome and thrives at breaking up counter attacks. The pressure will be intense on the Americans to break down Argentina without Wood’s ability to stretch the defense. Argentina has only surrendered two goals in four tournament games.
Replacing Wood will be the hard part for the United States. Prior to his suspension, he was forming an excellent understanding with attack partner Clint Dempsey. Manager Jurgen Klinsmann could opt to push Gyasi Zardes into a central forward role. Zardes is knocked for his occasional poor touches, but he did find the net in USA’s 2-1 quarterfinal victory over Ecuador. Klinsmann could also turn to 33-year-old striker Chris Wondolowski as a straight replacement for Wood, while keeping Zardes in a wide role.
Keep in mind, Klinsmann and his men were able to keep Ronaldo off the scoresheet in the 2014 World Cup group stage during a 2-2 draw. But Portugal has always been somewhat of a one-man team. Figure out how to frustrate and contain Ronaldo and you’ll get a result. Portugal’s game plan is built around him.
The dominant Argentines possess a wealth of attacking threats to throw at the U.S. It’s hard to see how the Americans weather the storm without the tireless box-to-box covering of Jones and Bedoya. Kyle Beckerman is the obvious choice to replace Jones. The 34-year-old is a steely presence, but he’s more a shield for the back four and less of an all-action, last-ditch tackler.
Argentina hasn’t lifted a major trophy in 23 years. As much as Messi is hailed as the central figure of Barcelona’s countless triumphs, he has also been taken to task for Argentina’s inability to get over the hump at prestigious tournaments. He is hungrier than ever to deliver for his country. It would be surprising to see the U.S. keep him off the scoresheet and pull off an upset on Tuesday in Houston.MORE NEWS: Flag Day Celebrated In Times Square
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey