HOUSTON, TEXAS - There certainly were plenty of things the United States wishes it had done better or differently in Tuesday's Copa America semifinal against Argentina.
However, it's entirely possible there was nothing these players could have done to neutralize Lionel Messi in a 4-0 loss that illustrated just how wide the gap is between U.S. soccer and the world's elite.
“He's one of the – you could say the best player in the world,'' defender Geoff Cameron said. “We didn't do ourselves any favors. Yeah, you can pat ourselves on the back and be happy we got here in the semifinals. Obviously, it's a massive achievement. But saying that, we didn't perform as well as we should have or could have, and we'll look back and be disappointed for sure.''
The five-time world player of the year set up Ezequiel Lavezzi's opening goal in the third minute, then scored on a free kick to break Argentina's career scoring record and assisted on the final goal to put La Albiceleste into the Copa America final against defending champion Chile or Colombia.
“This was the goal when we got here, to play another final, and we made it,'' Messi said. “We've been spectacular from day one and we deserved this.''
After Messi doubled the lead in the 32nd minute with his 55th international goal, his fifth of the tournament, Gonzalo Higuain quickly ended U.S. comeback hopes when he put the rebound of his initial shot past goalkeeper Brad Guzan in the 50th. Higuain scored off Messi's pass in the 86th, his fourth goal of the tournament.
“There will be always a step backwards and then we will go two more forward,'' U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “That is a part of our process. I told the guys heads up and just swallow it. It's a special team, Argentina.”
A standout team
Special, indeed – with no one more extraordinary than Messi, whose free kick wowed the crowd and sent social media afire. Argentina was up 1-0 when Kyle Beckerman slipped and Chris Wondolowski took down Messi, earning a yellow card. Klinsmann screamed at Paraguayan referee Eduardo Cardozo as Messi placed the ball about 26 yards out, a few yards closer to the goal than the foul. After the U.S. set up its wall, Messi bent a beautiful curving drive that went just over Guzan's outstretched left palm and into the upper corner.
“It was perfect,'' Cameron said. “You can't do anything better than that.''
Although that goal was undoubtedly the wow moment, the U.S. was already done in after going down so quickly.
“At this stage it's all mental, and that's when you already lost your mental battle,'' Klinsmann said. “It's just clear that once they have a lead, they're not giving that lead away anymore. They know exactly how to kind of organize themselves behind the ball quickly.''
Klinsmann was forced to shuffle his lineup with midfielders Jermaine Jones and Alejandro Bedoya and forward Bobby Wood serving suspensions. He used Wondolowski, Beckerman and Graham Zusi in their spots.
“We couldn't compensate the fact that we missed those three guys,'' Klinsmann said.
The U.S. has a spot in the third-place game on Saturday in Glendale, Arizona. That gives it only a few days to regroup and shake off its most lopsided competitive loss since a 5-0 defeat by Mexico in the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup final.
“We always knew it was going to be difficult,'' Guzan said. ``These are good teams from down in South America so it was going to be a big test for us. So to get to the semifinal of the Copa America, it's a good accomplishment but at the same time we wanted to win tonight. That wasn't the case. We'll now look to go to Phoenix and finish on a high.''