Losing 4-0 to anyone will always look terrible, no matter the opponent, even if it’s against one of the world’s best teams. Argentina might not have moved out of second gear Tuesday night, but even in cruise control they still looked nearly untouchable. Though the US played badly, and may not have set themselves up to succeed, the best of this current US Men’s National Team might not have fared much better. Because of that, this game should not be a referendum on anything other than Argentina’s own might.
Despite what the game in Houston may have shown, the US has advanced in the Copa America. They have found a consistent system, formation, XI and a core group of players that can be trusted and relied upon without constant tactical tweaks and niggles in every match. Even in World Cup 2014, which many considered a success, Jurgen Klinsmann never stopped tweaking and changing his team. Some of that had to do with injury, but it pales in comparison to what he has been doing in this tournament. That at least is evolution. John Brooks had a poor game against Argentina, but his growth in the tournament as a whole has earned him admiring glances from bigger and more glamorous clubs, as his performances have warranted. Bobby Wood has cemented himself as an automatic USMNT selection from now on, and DeAndre Yedlin and Gyasi Zardes have also shown dramatic improvement from their early days national team form. While there is still quite a lot to fix, particularly in midfield, signs of growth are tangible and tactile, which couldn’t be said recently.
Michael Bradley was uncharacteristically poor against Argentina. Whether that was unforced or forced by Argentina’s tactics and midfield prowess (it’s both), is almost irrelevant. Kyle Beckerman, Graham Zusi and Chris Wondolowski were not the right choices for this match for the style the US evidently wanted to pursue. Being down three of your best and most integral pieces doesn’t help the situation, but that doesn’t excuse the mistakes outright regardless. However, those mistakes do not totally dismantle what had been built before. Is it conceivable to assume that with Wood, Jones and Bedoya, the performance would have been better? Yes, but that almost feels redundant and counter-intuitive, as does blaming Klinsmann whole hog for the performance as well.
What the US has gained and accomplished in this tournament supersedes one bad night against a team that looks unstoppable. More of that progress would have been shown in different circumstances, some of those unavoidable, some not so unavoidable, but holding this game as a referendum on the current status of US soccer while easy, is also reductionist. Beyond Messi, this Argentina team is playing in a way that few recent editions have been able to, and in a way that few if any national teams around the globe would be able to stop. The US even at their best would still be blown away by Argentina even in third gear, and all everyone watching would be left with would be “it wasn’t as bad as Mexico’s 7-0 loss to Chile” and moral victory platitudes and participation ribbons. In some ways, the US’ performance in Houston shows just how far they have to go to be competitive with a team at that level instead of misinforming us of where they really are, as the Belgium Round of 16 tilt in World Cup 2014 ended up becoming.
Certainly, the US were outclassed by a thoroughly superior side with one of the game’s greats as well as many players at top form playing as well as they are together. Jurgen Klinsmann’s decisions played into that to be sure, but you can only hold out so long against an oncoming tidal wave. While this result is a reflective surface in which the viewer can take away whatever they want to see from it, don’t let those perceptions and biases detract from what has been achieved, and what can still be achieved in Glendale Saturday night.
Argentina will make many a great team look like the US did, whether they played into their hands or not. Tuesday night is not a program defining game for US Soccer, though some will say it is. Don’t let what they have achieved be overshadowed by a team not only better than them, but better than almost everyone else.
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