The United States were always fighting an uphill battle against Argentina. La Albiceleste are the best team in the world and the Americans, well, they’re not great. Nine times out of 10, the U.S. could play their very best game and still lose to Argentina. But as difficult as it was always going to be, the U.S. could have been a lot better than they were in their 4-0 loss on Tuesday night.
The issues started before the match. With Jermaine Jones, Bobby Wood and Alejandro Bedoya all suspended, Jurgen Klinsmann had to make changes to a team — something he had been hesitant to do all tournament. Instead of opting for youth, athleticism or even skill, he went with older players whom he presumably trusted to be responsible on both ends. In came Kyle Beckerman, Graham Zusi and Chris Wondolowski.
There were two problems with that: The trio isn’t especially good nor well-suited for Tuesday’s match, with all being slower than the players they replaced, and that group was indicative of an approach that was doomed to fail.
All tournament, Klinsmann has been trying to implement a "proactive" system and, for much of Copa America, it’s been admirable. Sometimes, it has even been effective. Pushing his fullbacks forward, trying to play out of the back and committing players into the attack has been the team’s M.O. They want to play with a stretched field. But that’s exactly what Argentina want teams to do against them.
Argentina have a sturdy defense that accepts pressure without a problem. It’s how they have now gone nine knockout-stage matches in three tournaments and allowed only two goals. And by doing so, there is space for La Albiceleste to attack, which they do quite well.
It doesn’t matter how good the U.S. think they can attack or what they want to do, playing how the No. 1 team in the world wants you to play is a bad idea. Argentina is better at it than you are, and that’s even if you’re really good at it.
The U.S. approached the match not with confidence, but with hubris, and it bit them. They never had a chance to succeed playing that way.
The U.S. didn’t even play well so their attempts at being proactive or dictating anything became an exercise in them chasing the game, looking as stunned by Argentina as anything else.
The Americans had just 32 percent of possession, a number that wouldn’t be a killer if they were content to give the ball away to defend and take away space, but they weren’t. The Americans tried to get and keep the ball. Instead, they just kept handing it back, with the entire midfield struggling to pass the ball, the team completed a mere 71 percent of its passes (a number that skyrocketed in the second half, when Argentina took their foot off the gas).
So the U.S. couldn’t pass the ball, which isn’t great. And unsurprisingly, they rarely got the ball to their forwards.
The result? Zero shots. Not zero shots on goals. Zero shots total.
It’s not so much that the U.S. got beaten as it was that they weren’t even in the game. They were out-played in every was possible.
Whereas sometimes an early goal changes the match, when Argentina scored in the third minute it was simply the start of what was always going to come, and did come for the entire match.
It would be one thing if the U.S. showed up with the recognition that they were underdogs and planned as such. If they tried to exploit Argentina’s weaknesses, or even not play directly to their strengths. But they didn’t. They tried to play like they had all tournament, only with inferior players due to suspension — Klinsmann admitted after the match that all three veterans were like-for-like choices meant to fit the way the team had played previously — and they did it against the best team in the world.
It’s impossible to ignore that – the best team in the world. Argentina are a powerhouse, having now gone 5-0-0 in this tournament and outscored their opponents 18-2. You can argue that Ecuador are a pretty good team, or even that Colombia are one of the best sides around, but neither is on the same level as Argentina. The Americans took a giant step up in quality Tuesday and it showed.
No matter what the U.S. did, they were probably going to lose. Argentina’s worst player is someone the U.S. would covet. But that doesn’t mean that the Americans couldn’t have done better. They could have done a lot better, from Klinsmann’s lineup and tactics, to the attitude they were reflective of, and how the team played. It was a lost night for the U.S., and that’s before you get to the 4-0 scoreline.