Lionel Messi pretty much ended the United States' Copa America hopes in less than three minutes.
Argentina's diminutive dribbling and scoring machine showed the skills, speed and brilliance that made him a five-time world player of the year, exposing the huge gap between the U.S. and soccer's elite.
Messi set up Ezequiel Lavezzi's opening goal 175 seconds in, scored on a free kick to break Argentina's career scoring record and assisted on the second of Gonzalo Higuain's two goals in a 4-0 rout Tuesday night that put La Albiceleste into the Copa America final.
"We got outplayed badly by a very good team," U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said. "Today is a good day to judge where we are in program overall. We're obviously a long way off."
Messi flicked the ball over the defense to an open Lavezzi for the opener, then doubled the lead in the 32nd minute with his 55th international goal, his fifth of the tournament. Higuain added goals in the 50th and 86th minutes, the latter off Messi's pass.
Argentina had 67 percent possession and outshot the U.S. 10-0 — nine of them on goal.
"Once we were 1-nil down, we had far too much respect," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. "After that early goal, I think just that our players could feel that they are just probably in every position on the field just better than we are."
U.S. players seemed shocked after their largest margin of defeat in a competitive match since a 5-0 loss to Mexico in the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup final. While saying he respected Klinsmann's opinion, U.S. captain Michael Bradley also said: "Please don't make it out to be anything like that."
Argentina seeks its first major title since the 1993 Copa — and its first since Messi's debut in 2005 — on Sunday in East Rutherford, New Jersey, against the winner of Wednesday's semifinal between Chile and Colombia.
"We deserve it, for all the good work we've been doing all these years," Messi said.
Argentina will be missing Lavezzi, who broke his left elbow when he fell backward over an advertising sign board in the 63rd minute while trying to chest a pass.
Hosting a special, expanded 16-nation edition of South America's championship to celebrate Copa America's 100th anniversary, the U.S. won a difficult group that included third-ranked Colombia and then beat No. 13 Ecuador in the quarterfinals. But top-ranked Argentina and Messi, who turns 29 Friday and is at the top of his game, stunned the No. 31 U.S. and the sellout crowd of 70,858 at NRG Stadium.
"It's some of his angles and his spurts and just going from a walk to an absolute sprint," U.S. midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. "You try to do what you can to stop him, but once he gets going, it's hard."
The U.S. closes its tournament Saturday in the third-place match at Glendale, Arizona.
Messi will try to fill a major gap in his resume. He has helped Barcelona win eight titles in Spain's La Liga and four in the Champions League, but his Argentina trophies have been limited to the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship for players under 20 and the gold medal in the 2008 Olympics, mostly for players under 23. La Albiceleste lost to Germany in the 2014 World Cup final in Brazil and to host Chile on penalty kicks in last year's Copa America final.
"I think that since losing the final in Brazil, these players set out to have a new possibility," Argentina coach Gerardo Martino said.
Klinsmann inserted Beckerman and midfielder Graham Zusi into his lineup along with forward Chris Wondolowski because of suspensions assessed to midfielders Jermaine Jones and Alejandro Bedoya, and forward Bobby Wood.
Argentina went ahead when Lavezzi played a short corner kick to Ever Banega, who passed back to Lavezzi sprinting from the corner diagonally. Lavezzi beat Fabian Johnson to the ball and poked it to an unmarked Messi about 25 yards out, in the center of the field. As the U.S. defense started to come out, Messi one-timed a flick with his left foot over the back line to Lavezzi, who headed the ball from 7 yards over goalkeeper Brad Guzan.
Klinsmann tried to steady his players.
"You were trying to scream into the field, saying, 'Go at them. Go. Become physical. Just step on their toes,'" he recalled.
Messi doubled the lead after he was fouled by Wondolowski. Klinsmann yelled at Paraguayan referee Eduardo Cardozo as Messi placed the ball about 26 yards out, closer than the spot of the foul.
"If it's 5 yards back, he's not shooting the same ball," Klinsmann said. "We're just too nice then in those moments."
Messi bent a beautiful curving drive that went just over Guzan's outstretched left palm and into the upper corner. It moved him one ahead of Gabriel Batistuta's career total, according to the Argentine Football Association; FIFA records Batistuta's total as 56, including two goals in an exhibition against Slovakia in June 1995.
"I'm really happy to have overcome the Bati," Messi said.
Higuain made it 3-0 when he burst past John Brooks for Lavezzi's pass, one-timed a shot that Guzan stopped and poked in the rebound. Higuain got the final goal after second-half sub Steve Birnbaum gave the ball away to Messi about 35 yards out.
"We let them in into a flow, and we weren't physical enough," U.S. defender Geoff Cameron said. "I think we respected them a little too much."
Notes: The U.S. dropped to 2-9-1 against top-ranked teams. ... A bare-chested male fan ran onto the field as the second half was about to start, and he was tackled by security, and another spectator ran onto the field after the final whistle and got within 5 feet of Messi.