Argentina has Lionel Messi on its side, and the United States does not.
The Argentine star led his team to a 4-0 victory in Tuesday's Copa America semifinals match in Houston's NRG Stadium and essentially ended the contest in the first half with an assist and a goal. The game was not even as close as the four-goal deficit indicated, as the Americans didn't register a single shot.
What's more, Argentina finished with 68 percent of the possession, per ESPN FC, and was in full control from the opening minute.
It wasn't all Messi for Argentina, as Gonzalo Higuain scored twice and Ezequiel Lavezzi scored the game's first goal, but No. 10 assisted on two of those three goals his teammates scored. Thanks to his efforts, Argentina will play in Sunday's championship match with the chance to break an extended drought, as ESPN Stats & Info noted:
Argentina is the No. 1 team in the official FIFA rankings, and it didn't take long to prove why. Lavezzi buried a header in the third minute off a brilliantly placed chip pass from Messi after an Argentina corner to put the United States behind 1-0.
Ives Galarcep of SBI Soccer called it the "worst possible start" for the Americans, while Jerry Palm of CBS Sports placed the blame on goalkeeper Brad Guzan:
Fox Soccer shared the game's first breakthrough:
ESPN Stats & Info said it was the fastest goal the United States ever allowed in the Copa America. While the defense didn't allow another goal throughout the middle portion of the first half, it was still having trouble keeping up with Argentina's overwhelming skill level.
Argentina dictated possession, thanks largely to Messi's ability to control the flow of a game and hit his teammates with passes. ESPN's Bomani Jones had an apt metaphor for the opening 25 minutes:
The goal reprieve didn't extend throughout the remainder of the half. Messi drew a yellow card on Chris Wondolowski in the open field when the American defender essentially bowled over the Argentine playmaker. It set up a free kick, and Messi unleashed a magical strike that curled and spun straight into the upper corner of the goal, via Fox Soccer:
He made some history for Argentina in the process:
Argentina took the 2-0 lead into the halftime locker room. While Messi's presence was the difference on the scoreboard with an assist and a goal, the Americans simply weren't controlling the ball, and Argentina tallied 72 percent of the possession in the first 45 minutes, per ESPN FC.
Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated summarized the issues for the United States: "Argentina's pressure is suffocating the moment the U.S. ever wins the ball. Doesn't stay with the Americans for long."
In an effort to drum up some offense, United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann inserted Christian Pulisic into the lineup for the overmatched Wondolowski to start the second half. It did no good for the Americans, as Higuain ended any comeback hopes with a goal in the 50th minute after the defense lost track of him inside the penalty box.
Argentina was a different class than the United States, but soccer analyst Alexi Lalas recognized the United States wasn't putting forth its best effort:
The match was well in hand for Argentina, but Lavezzi experienced a scary fall when he backpedaled into the advertising board and flipped over it. Erik Lamela replaced the injured Lavezzi in what was essentially the only thing that went wrong for Argentina during the match.
It was determined after the game that Lavezzi fractured his arm from the fall and will miss the championship match, per ESPN FC.
While the scoring slowed during the middle stretch of the second half for Argentina, it still controlled possession and never allowed any legitimate chances for the Americans. Phil Murphy of ESPN reflected on the difference between the two sides:
Messi would not be denied another chance to make an impact late in the game, and he found Higuain on the break for another assist in the 86th minute. Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated compared Messi to another talented athlete who enforced his will on the game with more than just his scoring:
It was the final goal of the straightforward 4-0 win for Argentina.
Argentina will play in the Copa America championship match on Sunday against the winner of Wednesday's clash between Colombia and Chile. The United States will play the loser in the third-place game on Saturday.
Colombia is No. 3 and Chile is No. 5 in the FIFA rankings, so both the United States and Argentina will be challenged in their next contests. Chile has plenty of momentum on its side after it dominated Mexico in the quarterfinals to the tune of 7-0 last Saturday, while Colombia features the electrifying James Rodriguez on the attack.
However, as long as Messi is leading the way for Argentina, the world's No. 1 team is a force to be reckoned with. He proved as much on Tuesday.
After the loss, Klinsmann said, “You saw tonight why Argentina are the No. 1 team in the world," per Fox Soccer.
While Argentina was superior on Tuesday, the United States was playing without Bobby Wood and Jermaine Jones, who were both suspended. Despite the missing personnel, Michael Bradley said, per Caitlin Murray of Fox Soccer: “When you lose 4-0 you’re not talking about anyone not on the field. Plain and simple.”
On the other side, Messi discussed his team’s overall efforts in the tournament, per ESPN FC: “This was the goal when we got here, to play another final, and we made it. We've been spectacular from day one, and we deserved this.”
Argentina is one victory away from that elusive title.