Klinsmann's starting XI must be spot-on if the U.S. are to beat Argentina
The United States met Jurgen Klinsmann's stated goal of a semifinal berth in the Copa America Centenario with a hard-fought win over Ecuador on Thursday night in Seattle.
While the semis are nice, there's doubt that advancing to the final of the home tournament would be a truly remarkable feat for Klinsmann and his team, especially in light of a trying 2015.
The task is gargantuan. The Americans must beat the No. 1 team in the world, Argentina, if they're going to continue their tournament run.
Beating La Albiceleste means finding a way to not only shutting down the best player in the world, Lionel Messi, but finding a way to score against a team that has given up just two goals in the tournament so far.
Here are three keys to the match:
1. Klinsmann's lineup
Before the Americans take the field against Argentina at NRG Stadium in Houston, Jurgen Klinsmann and his staff have the tough chore of cobbling together a functional team from a roster missing Jermaine Jones, Alejandro Bedoya and Bobby Wood.
The three suspended players were key cogs in the United States' run to the semifinals, and it's not going to be as simple as plugging in replacements for the match against a team as good as Argentina.
Klinsmann's side has started out in a 4-3-3 only to shift to a 4-4-2 midway through the first half in each of their last two matches. No matter the formation, however, Michael Bradley has been allowed play in a deep-lying midfield role that best suits his abilities.
While not a classic defensive midfielder with all of the bite that implies, Bradley is excellent at moving the ball from back-to-front and typically impacts a game with one or two perfectly placed long balls from that position.
With Jones and Bedoya alongside him against teams that liked to attack from wide positions, the need for a player to protect the U.S. backline was mitigated. Against Argentina, however, the Americans will need a true defensive midfield presence. That likely means a lineup featuring Kyle Beckerman, though it's possible Klinsmann could turn to the younger, and more nimble, Perry Kitchen.
Who plays in the other midfield slot is anybody's guess, though there's a strong argument that it's time for Klinsmann to unleash Darlington Nagbe. If Klinsmann does the obvious thing and pushes Gyasi Zardes into a forward spot alongside Clint Dempsey, then Klinsmann will need to find a player who can cover a flank at both ends of the field.
With DeAndre Yedlin back from suspension, that could be Fabian Johnson, though moving Johnson into the midfield having to fill the left back spot again. Though Matt Besler did a reasonable job against the attack of Ecuador in that position, Argentina is a different beast and he won't have the benefit of Bedoya's ceaseless running and tracking back to help.
2. Pull Argentina's defence apart
Wood's absence means that the task of dragging center-backs out of position and creating space for Dempsey to do his thing falls to his replacement. That's a shame, because running the channels and picking up the ball in advanced positions is a Wood specialty. The recent Hamburg signing has rounded into a quality straight-line forward whose strength is an asset and provides Dempsey with the freedom to roam underneath.
Whether it's Zardes or another option, the man who steps into Wood's role should be able to find some joy against the mostly underwhelming Nicolas Otamendi and Ramiro Funes Mori. The pair has avoided major harm so far in the Copa America, but that would appear to be as much down to Argentina's dominance on the ball and threat on the other end as anything the defenders have done.
Before the tournament began, there was real discussion about Dempsey's role in the team. Now that the 33-year-old Texan has proved that it will take a bulldozer to get him out of the lineup, it's obvious that he'll need to be massive Tuesday night if the U.S. is going to advance.
Soccer is a team game, and the attack has to come from quality interchange and movement across a number of players. If someone can do Wood's job well enough, it will go a long way toward putting Dempsey in position to be the shining light again.
3. Guzan must be brilliant
As good as the American defence has been in the Copa America tournament, minus two debilitating mistakes in the group stage opener against Colombia, the likelihood is that goalkeeper Brad Guzan will need to bail his team out on multiple occasions against Argentina.
There's simply no reality that suggests the Americans will slow down Messi and Co. enough that Guzan won't be required to make several -- or more -- big saves.
As a shot-stopper, Guzan is good, perhaps even great. But his task against Argentina will also include numerous moments when split-second decisions are necessary. Stay on his line, or charge out?
The Albicelestes' penchant for quick one-two combinations and passing moves at the top of the box will force Guzan into choosing the best course of action with very little time to spare. Cutting down angles and pouncing on balls that are just a foot or two long for a streaking runner may decide whether the United States is in the game with a chance to win for the full 90 minutes, or if the scoreline gets away from them and leads to the same sort of humiliating defeat suffered by the Mexicans against Chile in the quarterfinals.
Most of the game will be played between the 18-yard boxes, with the U.S. chasing down Argentine passes and attempting to turn them into counterattacking opportunities. But those opportunities will mean nothing if the American defense doesn't hold up under what is sure to be stretches of sustained attack from the top ranked team in the world.
Geoff Cameron and John Brooks will have a lot to say about what Guzan faces in net. But they won't be able to keep Argentina completely quiet, and that means Guzan must be on the top of his game.
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.