SPORTS

Facing big, bad Argentina and Messi in Copa América semis, U.S. showing no fear

U.S. captain Michael Bradley (left) and Argentina's Leo Messi. (Photos: Getty Images)

U.S. captain Michael Bradley (left) and Argentina's Leo Messi. (Photos: Getty Images)

So, who is afraid of the big, bad wolf?

Certainly not U.S. national team coach Jürgen Klinsmann.

Well, you can't expect the Americans to be shaking in their soccer boots on the verge their biggest game of Copa América Centenario when they face off against Argentina in the semifinals at NRG Stadium in Houston on Tuesday night.

They have confidence after silencing critics after winning Group A by downing Paraguay, and then taking down Ecuador in must-win matches.

"This is what you want to experience," Klinsmann told reporters. "It's a huge motivation for us to take on Argentina, definitely one of the best sides in the world, to give them a real game and a real fight. We are not scared of them at all."

La Albiceleste is the top-ranked team in the world, according to FIFA, while the U.S. is a bit down on the list at No. 31.

Of Team USA’s 12 previous meetings against No. 1-ranked teams since 1993, the Americans have won three times – and those teams were only Brazil, Spain and Germany.

"We don't want to make this out to be Mission Impossible," U.S. captain Michael Bradley said. "It's 90 minutes. It's a semifinal, It's a chance to get into a final.”

Bradley added, "The longer you play in your career, [the more] you understand that these opportunities don't come around all the time."

They certainly don't, although this time the incomparable Lionel Messi and Argentina stand in the Americans’ way.

After sitting out the first game of the Copa, Messi has put on a personal clinic with his unbelievable skills and teamwork when he came on to produce a second-half hat trick in a 5-0 Group D rout of Panama.

“He’s probably the best of all-time,” Bradley said of Messi, according to the Washington Post. “But there are still plenty of examples of days when teams can collectively make the game hard on him and make space tight and force him to have to dribble sideways in moments, to put him on his right foot, to eliminate certain things and to have the mentality and commitment to do it over and over and over again for 90 minutes.”

That’s a lot to try to keep in mind. And, of course, Argentina is far from a one-man show, even if Messi is a human highlight reel.

Messi has had some able help from the likes of forward Gonzalo Higuaín, who has filled the net for Real Madrid and Napoli for years, and holding midfielder Javier Mascherano, Messi's Barcelona teammate. Mascherano and Messi know what it’s like to win Olympic gold – they took home medals from the 2008 Beijing Games – but a major international championship has eluded their grasp.

Despite all the impressive talent that has flowed out of the South American country, it’s stunning to learn that Argentina hasn't won a championship that matters in a generation – since the 1993 Copa América. Their second and most recent World Cup championship was way back when Diego Maradona hammered home the "Hand of God" goal during the 1986 edition in Mexico.

There is much pride and emotion on both sides, but Copa América is in the Argentines' blood.

La Albiceleste has won the Copa 14 times – second only to  Uruguay’s 15 – and finished as runners-up on 13 occasions.

In contrast, this is just the USA's fourth appearance.

Complicating matters for the Americans will be the absence of three starters – including Jermaine Jones, a stout defensive midfielder who probably would have been called on to make life miserable for Messi.

Jones was awarded a red card in the USA's 2-1 quarterfinal win over Ecuador. Forward Bobby Wood and midfielder Alejandro Bedoya also will miss the Argentina match after accruing two yellow cards.

Kyle Beckerman is expected to fill-in for Jones. Graham Zusi is a candidate to replace Bedoya and veteran Chris Wondolowski and 17-year-old Christian Pulisic are among the possibilities to step in for Wood.

"It's sad for those three players, but I am not worried," Klinsmann said. "Whoever steps in will get the job done."

In some respects, the U.S. run is reminiscent of its astounding success at Copa América '95 in Uruguay, when it reached the semifinals before falling to 1994 World Cup champion Brazil, 1-0.

On the way to the final four, the USA, facing a must-win situation, stunned the Argentinians in the final group play match, 3-0. Looking toward the knockout round, Argentina coach Daniel Passarella decided to rest many starters and he paid for it in more ways than one.

Of course, the likelihood of deploying a team full of reserve players is too unfathomable to comprehend. There is way too much stake this time around.

We don't know how immersed in history Argentine coach Gerardo Martino is, but it certainly wouldn't hurt to remind his troops of what transpired a generation ago.

Should the Red, White and Blue pull off the upset, it will go down as another historic result in American soccer history.

"There's no reason at all why we can't win Copa America," Klinsmann insists, noting how Team USA emerged from the Group of Death at the 2014 World Cup while favored Portugal and impressive Ghana were eliminated.

The coach said the Americans "deserve to be in the semifinals."

"Anything is possible in a knockout game," he added. "You have 50-50 on whoever you play against. I think that learning curve is big now. Dream big. Why not? This is now about two more games. If we get the crowd behind us, if the fans keep supporting us as they did in the last couple of games, then anything's possible."

Of course, if you don't aim high, you probably won't come close to achieving your goals.