HOUSTON — The U.S. national team is facing a daunting task on Tuesday. The Americans must try and stop the seemingly unstoppable force that is the Lionel Messi-led Argentina attack. It is a challenge that might leave many coaches dreading the possibilities, or preparing to trot out a game plan that consists of trying to park a very large bus in front of the goal in Tuesday's Copa America semifinal.
If you believe what Jurgen Klinsmann has spent the better part of the past week saying, the last thing he wants is his U.S. team to sit back and simply try to keep it close in some bunker-fest of a game that would almost certainly end in a highlight reel of inevitable Argentina goals.
No, what Klinsmann wants his his U.S. team to grow up and have the confidence to stand toe-to-toe with a team like Argentina and have the confidence to attack and trade proverbial punches with a team known for knocking opponents out with ease.
"This is really now a special moment," Klinsmann said of Tuesday's semifinal at NRG Stadium. "This is a moment that — I told the players already yesterday here before we started training — 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," Klinsmann continued. "So add another 10 percent to what you did already. If everybody does that, we have a game with Argentina."
Based on those comments, you would think Klinsmann will deploy his team in an attack-minded lineup, rather than a defensive-minded setup as most would expect. It's one thing to have his team battle Argentina with the right fighting spirit and belief that they can win, but it's another to set his team up with a lineup that suggest this U.S. team plans to throw as many punches as it takes.
One line Klinsmann said before the quarterfinal win against Ecuador stuck out when he was discussing the growth of his team, and their increasing belief that they can take on, and beat, all comers.
"Take the game to them, that’s what we talked about over the last couple of years," Klinsmann said at the time. "Learn how to take the game to the opponent, even if they have a lot of respect for them."
When you talk about facing Argentina, there are certain realities you have to deal with, no matter how confident you are in your team and its defense. The U.S. will need to pay extra attention to Messi, and will likely configure a lineup that maximizes the defensive support on the left side of the field, where Messi is known to spend much of his time roaming.
Beyond those allowances, the U.S. must deploy a team that can test Argentina's defense. Something that will be easier said than done without starting forward Bobby Wood and midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, both of whom are suspended.
The easy answer would seem to be national team novices Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic, who have become fan favorites but who have not seen the field since the opening match. As enticing as both are to consider for starting roles, Klinsmann is much more likely to turn to veterans against a dangerous team like Argentina. That means the likes of Kyle Beckerman and Graham Zusi, with Chris Wondolowski another possibility.
None of those picks would be seen by a majority of U.S. fans as the kind of options that can help the U.S. upset Argentina, but Beckerman and Zusi are both World Cup veterans who have played in plenty of big matches.
How Klinsmann deploys his starting lineup will let us know whether he genuinely believes what he has been saying, that this team has grown and matured to the point now where it just might be able to really go after a world power in a match that matters. If Klinsmann does believe in his team, then his players just might respond by believing that they can actually pull off the upset very few think they can.
Could it be risky to try and trade attacking blows with a team as dangerous as Argentina? Sure, but if the U.S. is ever going to beat a world power in a meaningful competition, it is going to have to take a chance and actually try to match a powerhouse on even terms. Yes, it could lead to a multi-goal loss, but it's better to lose big while trying to fight than losing big while being picked apart in a defensive posture.
And even if they don't beat Argentina, if the U.S. can stand in the ring with Argentina and make it a competitive match, and play like a team that belongs on the same field as the No. 1 ranked team in the world, then that would be its own kind of victory.