Yes, the US lost 4-0 to Argentina, and it could have been worse if la Albiceleste changed up out of second gear. It is also true that right now, Argentina are the best national team in the world by a considerable margin. What happened last night in Houston lives somewhere in between bad lineup decisions, lack of personnel and a world-class team on the other end of the pitch. In looking for answers and explanations, only peering into the black and white won't bring the discussion forward. The answer as always, lies in the grey area.
It is true that Jurgen Klinsmann sent out his team wrong tonight. He tried to replace what he lost with Jermaine Jones, Alejandro Bedoya and Bobby Wood suspended by trying to find their most like-for-like replacements in Kyle Beckerman, Graham Zusi and Chris Wondolowski. Those moves backfired spectacularly. Many will say that was inevitable, and that's certainly not wrong, his insistence on sticking to a style of play that got them to this stage is by no means a bad decision. While Klinsmann has many bad tactical decisions on his resume, this was an admirable one against a team that not only is miles better than anyone they have played thus far, but is in form like no US team has faced potentially in years. Klinsmann was not helped by Michael Bradley being put in a position where he couldn't succeed (and didn't), Kyle Beckerman looking out of his depth on the international level and Tata Martino's tactics to win the midfield battle being spot on. Klinsmann also said the US showed Argentina too much respect, which was absolutely true, as they certainly looked overawed by the situation. To a point, Klinsmann can only do so much before the players have to bear the responsibility for giving Argentina too much respect.
But beyond poor tactics, poor performances and a deer-in-the-headlights feel to the game, there's more to this than just what came from the Stars and Stripes.
Argentina two years ago looked nothing like this. The personnel is largely the same, but with Tata Martino in charge instead of Alejandro Sabella, there's a fluidity, a motion and a verve to Argentina that wasn't present when under Sabella they seemed to look for that one moment of magic to win. They haven't just been the best team in this tournament, they've been the best team in the world including the Euros. Without Messi (and with Di Maria), they were able to boss a Chile team that just won its last two games by a combined score of 9-2, and made their press look toothless. After they lost Angel Di Maria, they plugged in Nico Gaitan, and didn't show a drop in form. After Gaitan was suspended due to yellow card accumulation, Martino played Ezequiel Lavezzi, and again, Argentina still look world class. And with that pool thinning ever still after Lavezzi's injury last night, Martino can still play Javier Pastore, Erik Lamela or even Kun Aguero. Depth in numbers is something Argentina has in spades, and the US certainly doesn't, even with the full XI on the pitch. While the US player pool is getting better, albeit slowly, they're nowhere near the level Argentina is where they can afford to leave a Paulo Dybala at home.
No lineup Jurgen Klinsmann could have put out there tonight would have beaten Argentina in the form they are in. Even with Pep Guardiola pitting his wits against Tata Martino tonight, the US still would have likely been beaten comprehensively. While Klinsmann didn't put his team in the best position to win, even if he did, that likely wouldn't have changed the result. With all of his best personnel at his disposal, Argentina are simply too good right now to be beaten by anyone who doesn't have that perfect combination of luck and skill, and the US certainly didn't have that last night.
It is also possible to say that there is no shame in getting beaten solidly by Argentina while saying they should have given a better account of themselves. Worse US teams have played better against equally good teams in the past, but comparing teams across eras is silly. A combination of poor tactics, poor performances, being in awe of the moment and facing a very good team in incredible form are the catalysts for the 4-0 defeat, not any of those factors individually nor even a sampling of two or three.
Playing in the third place game on Saturday in Glendale against a quality Chile or Colombia side is going to be a great litmus test of the US' nerve and resolve, because they will be judged on the performance then too, even though third-place games are almost always dead rubbers. But don't let that result, or tonight's result, take away from what has occurred in this tournament: progression forward. There has been improvement, even if it hasn't been dramatic or anywhere near what some would have wanted. Many teams in the world would have been blown away by Argentina tonight, or Sunday night, and the US isn't at the level where they can make simple mistakes and expect to play catch-up. Not many teams in the world can.
Could Klinsmann have picked an XI that would have put at least one shot on target? Yes. Could Michael Bradley have had a much better game? Yes. Would that have changed the inevitable? No.
The US can have an off night against a team that right now looks incapable of having an off night, and can beat anyone if they're at their best. Those factors can co-exist, and they do. We can find that 4-0 defeat against Argentina in the grey area where all of those factors played a key role.