The U.S. Men’s National Team’s progress to the semifinals of Copa America isn’t unprecedented, but it’s close. The U.S. has made it as far as the semifinals of a major tournament just a few times — once at the Copa America, twice at the worldwide Confederations Cup. You can add this year’s tournament to that list. And now the Americans have a chance to exceed all previous achievements.
Devoted American fans can rattle off the list of the team’s biggest victories, beating Spain, Argentina, Brazil and Germany.
While Thursday night’s victory against Ecuador doesn’t have quite the same name recognition, Ecuador is solidly in the top two dozen teams in the world. Playing at home, the USA should have expected to win. That said, it was just the fourth time ever that the USA has won a knockout-round game, in any tournament, against a non-North American team.
What the USA really has earned is a chance to leave the past tournaments behind. Though Argentina and Venezuela don’t play until Saturday night, most people expect Argentina to win comfortably and secure a spot in Tuesday night’s semifinal against the U.S. The Argentines have been the favorites since the start of the tournament. They have Lionel Messi, the best player in the world. They have Gonzalo Higuain, who scored 36 goals in 35 games last year in Italy, nearly double the second-place total. And they have Kun Aguero, who scored 24 times in the Premier League, the same total as much-lauded Leicester striker Jamie Vardy.
There’s really no tactical plan that Jurgen Klinsmann can put together to feel confident against Argentina’s irresistible attack, but there are two things that the Americans can lean on:
• For the first time under Klinsmann, the squad seems comfortable. The team’s performance over the first 30 minutes against Ecuador was one of its best, as the Americans controlled the ball and pressed Ecuador practically off the pitch. Only in the second half, after both teams had a player sent off, did the Americans revert to their old style, which depends on last-ditch defending and lots of energetic running.
• Second, for maybe the first time ever, the Americans have a genuinely solid partnership in central defense. Twenty-three year-old John Brooks, who last summer was perhaps the team’s shakiest player, has developed into maybe the best central defender in the tournament. He and Geoff Cameron have combined with the rest of the squad to allow just three goals in four games, none of which came from open play.
Regardless of what happens Tuesday, this Copa America will go down as one of the USA’s best performances. With an upset on Tuesday, though, it would stand alone.
•Minnesota United lost 2-1 in extra time to Sporting Kansas City on Wednesday, a disappointing U.S. Open Cup loss to the MLS side. This was the third time the Loons have played K.C. in the competition, and all three have been marked by controversy and physical confrontations. It’s safe to say that when Minnesota makes the jump to MLS, both sets of fans — and players — will circle the game dates on their calendars.
• The big story from the European Championships has been the brawling among fans. Blame seems to be shared between violence-minded Russian hooligans, drunk English fans and heavy-handed French policing.
• Much has been made about empty seats at Copa America games, but through Thursday night, the games still had averaged 41,500 fans per match. That’s not that far off the Euros, which through Thursday are averaging a shade over 48,000.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Euro: Belgium vs. Ireland, 8 a.m. Saturday, ESPN. With one game in the books, Belgium — one of the pretournament favorites — is reeling. A loss to Italy in their opening match leaves the Belgians badly in need of three points. The Irish, meanwhile, know a draw would leave them in control of their own destiny to qualify for the knockout round. All the pressure is on Belgium.
Copa America: Argentina vs. Venezuela, 6 p.m. Saturday, FX. Brazil is out, and Mexico, Chile and Colombia are all on the other side of the bracket. Argentina has to like its chances to take home its first Copa America title since 1993. First, though, it needs to get past Venezuela — the lowest-ranked team in the tournament, but one of the few which got through its group undefeated.
Copa America: Mexico vs Chile, 9 p.m. Saturday, FX. Though the tournament is in the USA, Mexico has been another home team, with legions of El Tri fans turning out wherever Mexico has played. Their team will need all the help it can get; if Mexico is going to claim the title, it may have to beat Chile, Colombia and Argentina in order — three of the world’s 10 best teams.
Euro: Switzerland vs. France, 2 p.m. Sunday, ESPN. After two wins, France needs just a draw to win Group A. Switzerland needs a win to top the group, which could be critical. The Group A champion probably will not have to face one of the tournament favorites until the semifinals, while the runner-up might play Germany and Spain in its first two knockout-round games.