Wednesday’s roundup: Argentina proves U.S. not elite

Ronald Blum
Associated Press

Houston — Minutes after Lionel Messi and Argentina had finished a 4-0 mauling of the United States in the Copa America semifinals, Jurgen Klinsmann was asked to assess the size of the gap between his team and soccer’s elite and how long it will take to close it.

“That’s a tough one,” the U.S. coach said. “I don’t have that answer right now.”

Having returned to the World Cup in 1990 after a 40-year absence, the U.S. is among seven nations to have qualified for the sport’s top tournament the last seven times, joined by Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, South Korea and Spain. During the past four years, the Americans have won at Italy, Germany and the Netherlands.

But those are exhibitions. In matches that matter, the U.S. often remains outmatched.

Walking out of the stadium after Tuesday night’s loss, the Americans looked wide-eyed and shell-shocked.

“We let them dictate the pace of the game. We let them get into a flow, and we weren’t physical enough. I think we respected them a little too much,” defender Geoff Cameron said. “We’ve played big teams before and we seemed to show well against them, but for some reason we didn’t put our best foot forward.”

The U.S. has vastly improved over the last quarter-century, and Americans now are regulars with clubs in England, Germany, France and Mexico. But, as Klinsmann often points out, none of them is a starter with the big clubs who dominate the Champions League. And the high points for the national team over recent decades remain the 2002 World Cup second-round win over Mexico and the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinal victory over European champion Spain.

“Today is a good day to judge where we are in program overall,” U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said outside the locker room on Tuesday. “We’re obviously a long way off. We knew that going in. But we knew we were a long way off when we beat Spain in 2009 or Germany or Holland last year.”

For all the good nights U.S. soccer has experienced, there have been disappointments of equal or greater magnitude. The 1-0 defeat to Germany and the 2-1 extra-time loss to Belgium in Brazil two years ago displayed the gap Messi exploited.

“There will be always a step backwards, and then we will go two more forward. That is a part of our process,” Klinsmann said. “So I told the guys, heads up and just swallow it.”

European Championships

Belgium 1, Sweden 0: At Nice, France, Belgium’s Radja Nainggolan scored in the 84th minute while Zlatan Ibrahimovic played his 116th and final game for Sweden after it was eliminated from the tournament.

Iceland 2, Austria 1: At Paris, Arnor Ingvi Traustason scored in the fourth minute of injury time to seal the win and Iceland’s spot in the round of 16.

Ireland 1, Italy 0: At Lille, Robby Brady’s late goal ended Ireland’s 22-year wait for a competitive win over Italy.

Portugal 3, Hungary 3: At Lyon, Cristiano Ronaldo erupted from his scoring slump by netting his first two goals of the tournament to make him the first player to score in four straight European Championships.