The U.S. wall was mere decoration. Lionel Messi’s left-footed free kick cleared the barrier and, as if under the direction of coordinates, sought out the high right corner of the net.
Goalkeeper Brad Guzan followed its path, left arm extended. Poor Brad. The ball ducked under the crossbar and rippled the interior of the target.
A capacity crowd at NRG Stadium — from the Argentine supporters in powder-blue jerseys to the U.S. backers in patriotic colors to the kids in Messi-labeled FC Barcelona shirts — gasped and marveled over the first-half goal Tuesday.
Argentina won the Copa America Centenario semifinal, 4-0. Messi, the greatest soccer player of his generation, won the night and, in the process, propelled La Albiceleste to the brink of its first major championship in 23 years.
The last hurdle for the world’s top-ranked team will come Sunday against reigning champion Chile or Colombia at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
The Americans will play for third place Saturday in suburban Phoenix.
“It’s just top class, what they’re playing,” U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann said of Argentina. “And I think the [U.S.] players realized that on the field, as well. It’s a special team, Argentina.”
Messi was most special. He was blinding and brilliant, the conductor of an attack that toyed with its overmatched and undermanned foes for extended stretches.
Three minutes into the match, he assisted on Ezequiel Lavezzi’s goal by delicately chipping the ball with one touch into the penalty area.
Messi’s 32nd-minute strike all but settled matters. Gonzalo Higuain converted the rebound of his own saved shot early in the second half, and Messi set up Higuain’s goal in the 86th as Argentina increased its tournament scoring margin to 18-2.
Despite starting just two matches, Messi has posted five goals and four assists.
“We can pat ourselves on the back and be happy we got here — it’s obviously a massive achievement,” defender Geoff Cameron said. “But saying that, we didn’t perform as well as we should have or could have. We’ll look back and be disappointed, for sure.”
It had been a good run by the Americans, who recovered from an opening defeat to Colombia to win the most balanced of the four first-round groups and then edge Ecuador in the quarterfinals.
They played hard, fed off Klinsmann’s emotion and, within technical limitations, performed with the spirit and grit that have helped define U.S. teams for years. But in the semifinals, already facing long odds without suspended starters Jermaine Jones, Alejandro Bedoya and Bobby Wood, they were outclassed all over the field.
“You have to be, I wouldn’t use the word perfect, but you know you have to be on top of every little thing in a good way for 90 minutes,” captain Michael Bradley said.
In place of the missing regulars, Klinsmann went with experience: defensive midfielder Kyle Beckerman, wing Graham Zusi and forward Chris Wondolowski. Fans hoping to see exciting newcomers Christian Pulisic, 17, and Darlington Nagbe in the lineup were disappointed, but against an opponent that promised to impose its will, this was no place for international novices.
Pulisic ended up replacing Wondolowski at the start of the second half, and Nagbe entered late. By then, the outcome was clear.
Experience did not help the Americans in the third minute. Lavezzi and Ever Banega played a short corner. Fabian Johnson challenged Lavezzi and poked the ball to Messi, who one-touched a left-footed chip deep into the box.
With Johnson down and Clint Dempsey drawn toward Messi, Lavezzi floated into a pocket of space. Messi’s pass was perfectly weighted. Guzan stepped forward, then held his ground. Lavezzi’s six-yard header drifted over the rooted goalkeeper.
“At this stage, it’s all mental,” Klinsmann said. “And that’s when you already lost your mental battle. Once they have that lead, they are not giving that away anymore.”
Lavezzi’s night took a scary turn in the second half when he backpedaled and flipped over a signboard. He injured his left arm and did not return.
Argentina’s ironclad grip on the match left the Americans chasing the ball and thumping long, speculative passes. Overall, the Argentines enjoyed 68 percent of possession and a 625-191 advantage in completed passes. The United States did not have a shot on goal.
Argentina’s ball control led to opportunities and ultimately to goals. Wondolowski received a yellow card for taking down Messi. Generous ball placement by referee Enrique Caceres further bolstered Messi’s chances on the free kick: left foot, upper corner, goal.
It was his 55th international tally, breaking a tie with Gabriel Batistuta for the Argentine record.
At the halftime whistle, Klinsmann walked to the center circle to complain to Caceres about the spot of the free kick. Had it made a difference? Sure. But Messi’s range defies convention. On this night — and on most nights — nothing’s going to stop him.