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On Tuesday night in Houston, the US men’s national team will square off in the Copa América semifinal against Argentina and a crafty, if short, left-footed midfielder named Lionel Messi. Maybe you’ve heard of him.
Containing Messi is something akin to catching a fish barehanded – if the fish had feet? If you had one arm tied behind your back and below-average hand-eye coordination? – but for the USMNT to advance to the tournament’s final, they must slow down the world’s best player as best they can.
How to do this?
Typically we see teams sit all 1o field players behind the ball, concede 70 or 80% possession, defend and defend and defend. In soccer parlance, a team parks the bus. Easier said than done, of course, though at least against Messi a parked bus means a whole lot of bodies between him and your goal.
But according to US soccer great Landon Donovan, who caught up with Business Insider on Monday to promote his new commercial with Buffalo Wild Wings (his favorite flavor of wings is teriyaki, we can report), the USMNT might consider a different defensive strategy to contain Messi and Argentina’s attack.
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“They can look to park the bus and frustrate and try to defend for their lives, and sometimes that’s a very good strategy. Sometimes you have no choice, and if they’re going to have 70% possession then you gotta deal with it,” Donovan said. “The other option, which is in my opinion riskier, is you can put out a team that says, we’re going to try to have some possession and try to dictate the pace a little bit, and if they do that, it gives you a better chance to win because you actually relieve some pressure.”
Fellow USMNT legend Alexi Lalas – also on the promotional grind during the tournament, but for Delta, the official Copa América airline sponsor – agreed that the USMNT parking the bus may not be enough.
“One of the great things about Messi is that he’s played hundreds of games where teams have tried to park the bus,” Lalas told BI. “His brilliance is that even when you park the bus, he finds ways to get through you.”
It’s important to remember, too, that Messi is by no means Argentina’s only offensive weapon. Sergio Aguero, Erik Lamela, Gonzalo Higuain, Ever Banega are all expensive players on some of the best super-clubs across Europe. Focusing too closely on Messi leaves these players roaming free.
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“You also have to recognize that it’s not as if he’s playing with ten other slouches,” Lalas added. “He’s going to have a lot of help, and he’s smart enough to know when to use it and when to rely on others when he’s being targeted.”
But big-name offensive players don’t always want to play defense, especially not against the USMNT.
“Higuain and Aguero and Lamela and Messi – these guys don’t want to play defense. They’re used to having the ball the whole game. So if you can flip the table the whole game, that may give you a better chance to win,” Donovan said.
No matter the defensive strategy, parking the bus or pushing to maintain some semblance of possession, the USMNT will be heavy underdogs in Houston. Argentina is currently ranked No. 1 in the world, have conceded two goals in four Copa América matches, and have scored 14. Getting on the score sheet could prove more challenging than slowing down Messi.
“It’s going to take a pretty perfect performance to beat this team because they’re one of the best teams in the world,” Donovan said. “But they’re absolutely capable of it. And they’re going to go give it a go.”
Lalas, for his part, is also optimistic for a Stars & Stripes upset.
“I do believe there are moments when the United States just recognizes an opportunity. I think they have the talent. I don’t think it’s as far-fetched as a lot of people believe it is.”