We’re a day away from the United States men’s national team playing one of the biggest games in the program’s history. Other than Spain at the 2009 Confederations Cup, Argentina will be the best team the U.S. has ever played in the knockout stages of an international competition. Led by a prowling Javier Mascherano, Argentina’s defense is reminiscent of Kevin Love’s in Game 7, and their attack has Gonzalo Higuaín and Ángel Di María. Oh, and Lionel Messi, who will be playing a real game against America in America.
By the way: The USMNT has not played well in this Copa America. Among the 16 teams in the tournament, all of the U.S.’s numbers grade out right around average. They were outplayed by a suddenly charisma-less Colombia team. They dominated a Costa Rican side missing one of the best goalkeepers in the world. And then they hung on for dear life to earn wins against the mediocre duo of Paraguay and Ecuador.
Yet tomorrow the Americans will take on the Best Player in the World and One of the Best National Teams in the World in the semifinals of a major international competition. Brazil went home a week ago. Uruguay followed the next day. And the Mexican soccer federation just found out why your parents tell you never to stare directly at the sun.
Compared to the Bob Bradley era, the USMNT hasn’t made any noticeable progress under Jurgen Klinsmann. The results have been roughly the same, and the team still plays a relatively unimaginative counterattacking style. But with a legitimate semifinal against Argentina looming, that isn’t really a problem.
The point of international soccer is to win international soccer games. And so far in this tournament, Klinsmann’s team has done just enough to win three of them. They’ve been lucky — getting matched up with a group that includes Ecuador and Peru, rather than one that included, say, Argentina and Chile — and that opened up a clear path to the semis, but the success of any national team probably gets driven more by chance than the human brain is comfortable comprehending.
The U.S.’s mediocre performance at the Copa America means a couple of things: The USMNT’s overall talent level isn’t better than that of something like the 20th-best team in the world, and as Philipp Lahm will tell you, Klinsmann isn’t a good enough manager to get them to perform at a higher clip than that. If Klinsmann were to play Borussia Dortmund’s 17-year-old Christian Pulisic — who you could argue might actually be the best American player alive — and some other younger, higher-upside guys on the roster, maybe the U.S. would hit some loftier peaks. But the elite international manager has become something between a dying breed and an enigma, so it’s hard to see the current USMNT as too far away from where it should be.
Klinsmann, who also serves as U.S. Soccer’s technical director, isn’t the savior of American soccer some might have hoped for when he descended from his helicopter five years ago. And there are still plenty of questions to be asked about the state of the sport in this country: Can we stop pricing out so many nonwhite kids? Why don’t we care more about coaching preteens? What do we do about college? How do you do anything cohesive (scout, implement universal training methods) in a country this freaking big? But the national team plays only around 10 competitive games per year, and it should never be the focal point for debating the state of soccer in America.
Without the suspended trio of Bobby Wood, Alejando Bedoya, and Jermaine Jones — three guys who check important boxes in the USMNT’s system — making the final will be difficult. The Americans probably won’t win and they almost definitely won’t outplay the Argentines, but if they can create something like 40 percent of the game’s chances and get enough bounces to go their way, then who knows? Their odds aren’t great, but they still have a shot — and for at least another day, that’s all that matters.
If the U.S. does the near impossible and beats Argentina tomorrow, it doesn’t mean soccer has finally made it in America. And if they get blown out, it won’t mean that things are suddenly in crisis, either. In this country (and many others), the results of the national team often become a referendum on the state of the game — and that’s not fair. But Klinsmann knew this was how things worked when he first took the job. Win or lose on Tuesday, he’ll still have plenty of questions to answer come Wednesday morning.