Goals from Ezequiel Lavezzi, Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuain were more than enough to send Argentina through to the final of the Copa America Centenario, as they thrashed the United States 4-0 on Tuesday night in Houston, Texas. The Americans, who were held without an attempted shot over the course of the match, will look forward to their third-place game on Saturday in Arizona, while Messi and company will contest the final against either Chile or Colombia on Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
A capacity crowd of over 70,000 spectators was on hand at NRG Stadium in Houston for the first of the two Copa America Centenario semifinals. Billed as one of the most significant matches in the history of the United States National Team, it represented the first competitive meeting between the U.S. and Argentina since 2007, when Argentina defeated the U.S. 4-1 in Copa America group-stage play.
Without Jermaine Jones, Bobby Wood and Alejandro Bedoya for the match due to yellow card accumulation suspensions, manager Jurgen Klinsmann needed to substantially change his U.S. starting 11. Argentina meanwhile were only without the services of the suspended Nicolas Gaitan, with manager Gerardo Martino having his full stable of attackers available for the match.
Klinsmann’s changes resulted in San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski replacing Wood, while Kyle Beckerman and Graham Zusi replaced Jones and Bedoya.
Argentina’s 4-3-3 formation featured Messi, Higuain and Lavezzi as forwards with FC Barcelona’s Javier Mascherano the key operator out of the midfield.
It took less than five minutes for La Albiceleste to hit the ground running and open the scoring in the match. An early corner conceded by the Americans resulted in Messi receiving the ball at the top of the penalty box in yards of space, a perilous situation for any defense to face.
Messi then sent a lobbed pass into the penalty area for Lavezzi, who headed past Brad Guzan to put Argentina 1-0 up after just three minutes. Guzan was caught in “no man’s land” with regard to Lavezzi’s header, as the Aston Villa goalkeeper began to come for the lobbed pass, but then started to retreat, only to be beaten for the goal.
The Americans struggled mightily in the first half to maintain any ball possession, rarely managing more than five consecutive passes before a hurried clearance was made downfield due to Argentinian pressure. The high pressing style of Argentina contributed to their 68% of ball possession in the match, and also afforded themselves with more than a few scoring chances.
As for the United States, offensive forays were few and far between in the opening 45 minutes. Goalkeeper Sergio Romero was hardly bothered for Argentina, as a semi-threatening cross from Gyasi Zardes was all that the U.S. could muster.
Wondolowski was ineffective in his role as striker, completing only two out of five passes attempted while failing to register a shot in the first half. Furthermore, it was his poor giveaway and subsequent foul on Messi near the United States penalty box that presented Argentina with a golden scoring opportunity on 32 minutes.
After being fouled by Wondolowski, who picked up the game’s only yellow card for his cynical takedown, Messi promptly dispatched the free kick from nearly 30 yards out to increase the Argentina lead to 2-0.
The strike by Messi was one that will live on long after the tournament concludes, not only for its brillance, but also for its historical significance.
Messi’s left foot did the work on the goal, hammering the ball past Guzan to the goalkeeper’s side of goal with pace and a slight amount of swerve on it. Crashing into the back of the net off the underside of the crossbar, the goal was Messi’s 55th of his senior international career, propelling him past a tie with Gabriel Batistuta for the all-time Argentina National Team scoring record.
In context of the match, Argentina were now able to coast into halftime with a 2-0 advantage.
Changes were needed from the American perspective and Klinsmann delivered by replacing Wondolowski with 17-year old Borussia Dortmund player Christian Pulisic for the second half. It was just Pulisic’s fifth-ever appearance for the United States in a substitution that Klinsmann hoped would inspire some more offensive play from the U.S.
But it was another early Argentina goal that would wrap the match up in favor of the South Americans.
Higuain was able to slip past the marking of John Brooks on a cross by Lavezzi and managed to stretch and make contact with the ball. While his initial shot was saved well by Guzan, the rebound popped straight back to the Napoli man, who easily poked past Guzan to make it 3-0 in the 50th minute.
The U.S. was able to enjoy a little bit more of the ball as Argentina relaxed heading into the game’s closing minutes, with Pulisic scuffing a shot from inside the penalty box in the best American attacking move of the night.
A scary scene was witnessed just past the hour-mark though when Lavezzi was stretchered off with what was confirmed to be a fractured left arm after tumbling over the advertising boards. Unaware of his position on the field while going for a header, Lavezzi was in fact off the field of play and near the electronic board when jumping to meet the ball.
The result was Lavezzi being flipped over by the board, with his left arm sustaining the injury on the fall. Lavezzi has been ruled out of the final on Sunday and is scheduled to undergo surgery in the coming days.
While Tottenham’s Erik Lamela replaced the injured Lavezzi, Klinsmann introduced D.C. United’s Steve Birnbaum and Portland Timbers midfielder Darlington Nagbe as the final two U.S. changes. The switches allowed the U.S. to send a few more men forward while limiting the defense to just three players, a move that backfired as Argentina claimed their fourth and final goal in the 86th minute.
Higuain completed his brace thanks to a calamitous series of errors by the United States near their own penalty box. A misplaced pass from midfielder Michael Bradley, in what was a poor performance from the U.S. captain, put Birnbaum in a bad position, facing a slew of Argentinian attackers.
Birnbaum then failed to make contact with the ball as it rolled across his body, going straight to Messi instead. The reigning FIFA Ballon d’Or winner then unselfishly fed Higuain as he streaked towards goal, who easily smashed the ball past Guzan to cap the scoring for Argentina.
The full time whistle officially marked the end of the 4-0 demolition and reserved Argentina a spot in the final on Sunday evening for the second consecutive Copa America. Losers to Chile on penalty kicks in last year’s edition, a potential rematch is on the table as Chile play Colombia on Wednesday night in Chicago to determine who will meet Argentina for the title.
The United States will play the loser of Wednesday’s semifinal in the third-place match on Saturday night, seeking to put a disastrous semifinal performance behind them and looking for their best ever Copa America finish (currently a fourth-place showing at the 1995 tournament in Uruguay).