Last night, we witnessed Lionel Messi and Argentina embarrass the U.S. Men’s National Team, 4-0 on its home turf in Houston, Texas in the semifinals of the Copa America Centenario. Without debate, it was the biggest game for the USMNT since its 2-1 extra time defeat to Belgium in the 2014 World Cup. Unfortunately, there appeared to be a lot less positive takeaways this time around. But if we dig really hard, here is what we can find:
First off, nearly 71,000 fans filled NRG Stadium in Houston on a Tuesday night to watch soccer. According to MLSSoccer.com, that was a Houston soccer record. On top of that, they came to cheer on a U.S team of predominately MLS players face off against the top ranked international team in the world. Everybody likes an underdog story and without having to market the game too vigorously, that is exactly how the bracket played this one out. Sure, a home team win would have been nice, but we can’t have everything we want.
Next, the future pool of U.S. players includes some potentially marketable stories. When the game was already lost, we saw Christian Pulisic from Hershey, Pennsylvania substituted in to shake up the tempo. Even though the U.S. finished without a shot on goal, the only opportunities that even made it close to the Argentina penalty box all came from the American wunderkind. He may not even come close to Messi’s talents, but Messi is a once in a generation player. Pulisic is the next best thing, already rising as a star in German soccer with Borrusia Dortmund, considered levels above American soccer. There were reports that he had just went to his prom last week. We also saw Darlington Nagbe, the Portland Timbers star from Liberia who became a U.S. citizen in 2015 to earn his shot at international glory, enter the game late in the second half to generate offense. One of the reasons why the Olympics earn such excellent TV ratings are the feel-good story lines of young American athletes triumphing over obstacles to reach some specialized sporting events that most average people could not care less about.
In many ways, the U.S. Men’s National Team has its own stories to draw interest. On top of Pulisic and Nagbe, there’s Clint Dempsey, the old but reliable scoring and rapping talent from Texas. Even more intriguing, backup goalkeeper Tim Howard’s legendary performance against Belgium two years ago has kept him on the map. His name was brought up almost as much as head coach Klinsmann on Twitter after the score was 3-0 on Tuesday.
Third, while this has been considered an official Copa America, it’s not a typical Copa America. The tournament is usually held every two years, but in order to create this anniversary edition (and to lure the event outside of South America) the Centenario was held this year, 2016, a quick year after the last official Copa America in 2015. If you throw in the corruption scandal that had to be sorted out beforehand, it almost makes the whole tournament seem entirely meaningless (but probably not).
In the aftermath of the game, U.S Soccer President Sunil Gulati, comparing the U.S. to national soccer teams like Argentina said, “we have a long way to go.” But that isn’t necessarily true. If the US wins the third place game on Saturday night in Phoenix, it will be the best finish by the U.S. in Copa America history. Out of the eight invitee nations outside of South America that have ever competed in the tournament, none have ever finished higher than second place. Maybe our expectations are too high. Maybe in a country used to dominating all sports, not being the best at one is just unacceptable. If we wait until we’re the best international team in the world before soccer takes off in the U.S, then we truly have a long way to go. But from a global perspective, the USMNT has plenty of reasons to hold their chins up high.
And finally, at least it wasn’t 7-0 like Mexico.