HOUSTON — Jurgen Klinsmann has steered the U.S. national team to its fair share of impressive results since taking over the program in 2011. Friendly wins over Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. A victory against Mexico to clinch qualification for the 2014 World Cup. A triumph versus Ghana to kick off the main event.
But Tuesday’s Copa America Centenario semifinal against top-ranked Argentina falls in another category entirely. Should the U.S. advance to a tournament final by knocking off Lionel Messi and Co., it would go down as the crowning achievement of the Klinsmann era to date.
“This is really now a special moment,” Klinsmann said. “I told the players [Friday]: ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for you now. You got into the semifinal, you made yourself proud, but now go for more. Now be even hungrier, be even more aggressive, more determined than you ever were before. So, add another 10 percent to what you did already.’
“If everybody does that, then we have a game with Argentina.”
Going toe to toe with the Albiceleste at NRG Stadium will be easier said than done. A decorated soccer nation, Argentina hasn’t won a major championship since claiming the 1987 Copa America crown. Finishing as the runner-up at the 2014 World Cup and 2015 Copa America has heightened the thirst for silverware.
For all of the honors Lionel Messi has claimed on the club level with Barcelona, the 28-year-old’s case as perhaps the greatest player of all time is hindered by the lack of titles for his national team. Although back and rib injuries limited Messi to one start and two appearances off the bench thus far in the Copa America, he still is second on the scoring chart with four goals.
Argentina’s roster also is loaded with stars well beyond the five-time word player of the year, with Javier Mascherano anchoring the midfield and Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel di Maria among the attacking options.
“It’s a very good team, a lot of very good players,” U.S. captain Michael Bradley said. “But we don’t want to make this out to be ‘Mission: Impossible.’”
Forward Clint Dempsey added: “It’s just going to have to be the team’s best effort. As the tournament has gone on I feel like we’ve grown in confidence and grown as a team in our belief. Hopefully we can use that to help keep putting us forward.”
Making the task more difficult will be the absence of midfielders Jermaine Jones and Alejandro Bedoya and forward Bobby Wood, all of whom will sit out the match because of cards received in the 2-1 win over Ecuador on Thursday.
That marks a significant disruption for a team that used the same starting lineup in all three group stage matches and made just one change in the quarterfinal. But with World Cup veterans Kyle Beckerman, Graham Zusi and Chris Wondolowski in contention for their first starts of the tournament, there’s confidence in depth that has been rarely tested thus far.
“It’s something that a team has to deal with throughout a tournament,” defender Matt Besler said. “For the most part we’ve been pretty fortunate throughout this tournament to have some consistency in the lineup. I don’t think that happens very often. Now is the time that [the absences] do happen, and we have to make sure we respond.”
An upset of Argentina would send the U.S. to MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, where Colombia or Chile would await on Sunday. In doing so, the Americans would book a spot in their first major tournament final since the 2009 Confederations Cup.
“This is top notch,” Klinsmann said. “This is what you want to experience. It’s fun to watch them, it’s impressive, but it’s also a huge motivation for us to take on Argentina, definitely one of the best sides in the world, to give them a real game, to give them a real fight. We are not scared of them at all.”