Houston — 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 tournament-leading fifth. 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
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.
Also read: Tearful Di Maria inspires Argentina at Copa
"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
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
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
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,"
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."
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