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Argentina advances to Copa America final after 4-0 rout over U.S.

Argentina's Lionel Messi, right, celebrates with Ever Banega after scoring on a free kick in the first half against the United States during a 2016 Copa America Centenario semifinal on Tuesday at Houston.
(Scott Halleran / Getty Images)
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Juergen Klinsmann’s aim from his first day as coach of the national soccer team was to prove the U.S. could compete with the best in the world.

On Tuesday he learned that goal is still a long way off, with Argentina dominating the U.S., 4-0, in a one-sided Copa America Centenario semifinal played before a sellout crowd of 70,858 at NRG Stadium.

“They are just probably, in every position on the field, better than we are,” Klinsmann said afterward.

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No one disagreed.

“That’s a great team,” U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati echoed. “That there’s a gap between the two teams is not a surprise to any of us.”

The size of the gap might be, however. The U.S. simply had no chance against Argentina, the world’s top-ranked team, or its star striker Lionel Messi, the world’s best player, who were both as good as advertised.

At times it looked as if Argentina was playing a different sport — faster, more creative and more dynamic than the one the Americans were playing. The South Americans also forced the U.S. to chase the game, piling up a 2-1 edge in possession, making more than three times as many passes — completing 93% of them — and not allowing the U.S. a shot.

It was the first time in 29 Centenario games a team didn’t have at least one shot.

And Messi was at the center of most of it, assisting on the first and last goals, scoring the second one and inspiring a crazed fan in an Argentina jersey to dash onto the field before the start of the second half, wrapping the unresponsive player in a hug before prostrating himself at Messi’s feet.

The difference in the teams was apparent from the start, with Ezequiel Lavezzi putting the South Americans in front with a header just four minutes into the game.

Not surprisingly Messi set it up with a left-footed chip from about 25 yards that found Lavezzi, freed by a screen on Fabian Johnson, near the edge of the six-yard box.

From there it was an easy goal for Lavezzi, his second of the Centenario and Argentina’s fifth in the opening 15 minutes of a game in this tournament.

“When you concede a goal after three minutes against such a team, at this stage it’s all mental,” Klinsmann said. “Once they have a lead, they’re not giving that lead up. No way.”

Messi made it 2-0 in the 32nd minute, bending an exquisite free kick into the far corner just below the crossbar for his 55th international goal, making him the most prolific scorer in Argentine history. It might have been the goal of the tournament.

Messi and Argentina didn’t let up, with Gonzalo Higuain scoring two second-half goals, the first in the 50th minute after shedding U.S. defender John Brooks deep in the penalty area and weaving around keeper Brad Guzan, and the second off another Messi assist in the 86th minute.

Messi and Higuain have combined for half of Argentina’s 18 goals in the tournament.

It was a complete performance against a U.S. team missing three starters to suspension. But it was also one some players seemed to accept with equal parts awe and disappointment.

“They’re clinical. You make a mistake, you give them one or two opportunities, they put the ball in the back of the net. And that’s the difference,” defender Geoff Cameron said. “We let them dictate the pace of the game. We weren’t physical enough.

“We respected them a little too much.”

With the win, Argentina moves on to Sunday’s final against the winner of Wednesday’s game between Chile and Colombia. A win there would end a 22-year title drought for Argentina in senior international tournaments.

The U.S., meanwhile, will play Wednesday’s loser Saturday in Glendale, Ariz., in a third-place game that will give the U.S. another chance to measure its progress, as both Chile and Colombia are ranked among the top five in the world by FIFA.

However Klinsmann was clearly in no mood for comparisons Tuesday. Asked how big the gap between the U.S. and the world’s top teams are, he shrugged and broke into a wry smile.

“That’s a tough one,” he said. “I don’t have that answer right now.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com


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