It is not like the United States stood much of a chance against Argentina in the Copa America semifinals. The safest thing to do was to keep men behind the ball and hope that Dempsey might do something clever. Or barring that, get a tie and pray for penalty kicks.
USMNT fans may recognize this as the Guatemala plan that made CONCACAF hell for the past 15 years: yellow cards and Carlos Ruiz. It’s not a terrible plan. The problem for the US was, it fell apart just three minutes into their semifinal, when Lionel Messi chipped the ball up to a wide open Ezequiel Lavezzi.
Again, this was not much of a surprise. The US was trying to shut down Lionel Messi and Argentina, something much better teams have failed to do. There’s not much to say about Messi that you don’t already know, but that doesn’t mean last night’s match can be discussed without staring in awe at Lionel Messi. It is disorienting to watch what is otherwise any other USMNT match, except Lionel Messi is in it. As a spectator, one finds themselves suddenly open to new angles and new opportunities. Instead of “I wonder if the player sees what I can see from HDTV?” It is, “Does Messi see something even better?” This is utterly thrilling, even if it’s being done against the team you love.
Being enthralled is not necessarily lots of fun, though. The United States planned to sit in front of Argentina and frustrate them. The problem with that was, frustrating Argentina without ur-frustrator Jermaine Jones is nigh-impossible. Kyle Beckerman isn’t athletic enough to nip at Messi’s heels. Chris Wondolowski isn’t scaring anyone. Graham Zusi is I guess nifty at free kicks? The problems with Jurgen Klinsmann’s CONCACAF plan was that they were missing important personnel, and Klinsmann, for all the praise I gave him, had no real Plan B if/when Argentina came out firing.
Lots of people are putting this loss on Klinsmann’s slim shoulders. These people are not wrong. Klinsmann’s entire identity as a coach has been to rail against the highly-organized defensive structure that he chose to match up against Argentina. The American eleven didn’t seem to have the cohesiveness or the sheer cussedness required to pull it off. It was almost like they spent the past few days getting instructions through gritted teeth.
The alternative probably would have looked like the United States playing to what their strengths are, or at least what Klinsmann perceives to be the strengths his team has. This would mean sending fast guys into space and hoping Michael Bradley can pick them out. Leaning on the fact that Fabian Johnson is one of the best left wingers in the world. Launching Clint Dempsey’s feet, head, elbows, and snarl from a catapult into the Argentine back line.
It could have been enthralling and fun. It also would have almost certainly lead to a United States loss. Nearly any plan Klinsmann could have drawn up would have lead to a nearly-certain US loss. A lot of plans don’t work against Messi.
The reason people are so frustrated with Klinsmann is that it was a loss without meaning. He was like Jon Snow against Ramsey Bolton, putting the USMNT in a risky position at very slim odds…and then allowing his plan to be smashed to bits very early on. I’m not sure who Sansa Stark is in this analogy but whoever she is, she didn’t materialize in the nick of time against Argentina. The US lost in a very predictable manner and doesn’t really have anything to show for it.
On the other hand, losing in such a way is not a shame in and of itself. The United States lost to Colombia and Argentina, but defeated Paraguay, Costa Rica and Ecuador. This sounds about right. That’s about the best that Americans could hope for in this tournament. The USMNT should be proud-ish.
So where are we at as a United States Men’s National Team in 2016? Predictable, in awe of Messi and maybe a bit self-satisfied. This is not a good look, and for all of the excitement of hosting a tournament as big as the Copa America the US doesn’t have much to show for it.
We haven’t learned a ton about how the United States plays soccer. We don’t know how promising youngsters like Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic might fit into the core of 2018’s World Cup squad. We have no idea what to expect from them going forward. Shoot, we haven’t even learned a whole lot about Lionel Messi. Except that he’s really good and capable of hitting what may be the best free kick in soccer history. No matter if it’s against Chile or Colombia, he’ll most likely end up owning the finals.
As for the US, there’s the little fact of the third-place match still to come on Saturday. It will mean nothing, and as such is historically a place for teams to experiment. Watch Klinsmann give Nagbe 90 minutes and try out Perry Kitchen for a bit. Watch it work, or at least bring a bit of dynamism to a team with tired legs. Watch jaws clench throughout the American soccersphere as pundits wonder why this wasn’t attempted a month ago. We’re all still wondering if Klinsmann has learned anything, even if us spectators haven’t had the opportunity to learn anything.
Maybe soccer is not for learning and it’s just for enjoying. If you can’t enjoy watching American soccer when it hits an absolute brick brick wall of an Argentine team – and why should you – you can at least admire the wall itself. It doesn’t look like the US is going to build its own version of such a team anytime soon.
This post was composed by freelance writer and swell guy, Asher Kohn. Reach out to him and discuss all the soccer happenings from around the world on Twitter at:@AJKhn.
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