DAVID SMITH - Monday, June 20, 2016
The United States faces the test of a lifetime on Tuesday night when they take on the world's current top-ranked team Argentina in a winner-takes-all 90-minute Copa América semifinal battle.
Two weeks ago, few would have imagined that the team would be 90 minutes away from the final after their deflating tournament-opening defeat at the hands of Colombia. Yet, a miraculous turnaround has seen them win each of their next three games to reach Tuesday's semifinal against world powerhouse Argentina.
La Albiceleste need little introduction, having a pair of World Cup titles to go along with their collection of 14 Copa América trophies. They are led by the unmatched Lionel Messi, whose status as one of the world's best - both currently and in the all-time annals of the sport - is only marred by his lack of a World Cup trophy.
It is no insult to say that Jürgen Klinsmann's squad will need to put in the performance of their lives if they hope to be the team that emerges victorious to secure a place in next weekend's final.
However, the squad has steadily improved throughout the tournament, and after showing their mettle to grind out the win over Ecuador in a less than ideal situation, there is reason to believe that the Americans can keep things tight enough to sneak a win.
In order to have any chance, Klinsmann will have to overcome the suspensions of three of the players who started each of the first four games - Jermaine Jones, Bobby Wood and Alejandro Bedoya.
Luckily for the German coach, the back line - arguably the stars of the tournament for the American squad alongside Clint Dempsey - is completely in-tact for the game, and will be the crucial factor in deciding whether the game will remain a tight affair.
Klinsmann in fact does have a bit of a luxury problem across his back line, as DeAndre Yedlin does return from suspension, and will likely return to the right side of defense.
The wingback play of Matt Besler on the left and Fabian Johnson shifted to the right in the team's quarterfinal win over Ecuador proving to be a huge success, so the German coach could roll the dice and insert Johnson into the midfield where he has been a standout for Borussia Mönchengladbach in the previous season.
Whether this will trigger a wholesale tactical switch in order to creatively provide cover for the missing players, or whether Klinsmann will do his best to make a like-for-like switch for each, will be revealed shortly before the 8pm local time kickoff.
Argentina has been slowly working their talisman Messi - who was slightly hobbled with nagging injury at the beginning of the tournament - into their lineup, and seem to finally have their superstar at full speed after he went 90 in their 4-1 quarterfinal win over Venezuela.
Their only setback is the suspension of attacker Nicolas Gaitan, who picked up his second yellow card on Saturday night and will miss the game.
The ever-dangerous Ángel di María is a minor injury concern for the Argentineans, although at worst the PSG attacker will be available in a substitute role.
The game is set to take place in Houston's NRG Stadium, with the kickoff happening at 8pm local time.