On Tuesday night in Houston, the United States Men's National Soccer Team, which has advanced to the Copa America semifinals thanks to timely scoring, the scheduling gods and a little bit of luck, takes on its toughest opponent yet: Argentina.
Lionel Messi and friends will play with expectations of solidifying their status as a global power. Meanwhile, the United States can claim possibly its greatest non-World Cup win of all-time by knocking off Goliath. For the Americans, it doesn't matter how you start, but it is about how you finish (as long as you make it out of the group stage).
Argentina Is No. 1 In The World
Yeah … so … they're good. Argentina has the best player on earth in Lionel Messi. For the last decade, La Albiceleste has been arguably the best offensive team in the world. Messi, Gonzalo Higuaín, Sergio Agüero and Ángel Di María, all 28, have been attacking stars throughout that time. Érik Lamela has also been outstanding from the midfield this tournament.
Argentina is less experienced in the back, but the game is expected to be played mostly on the American side of the field. Argentina, the 2014 World Cup runner-up, has not lost a competitive international match since a World Cup qualifier on Oct. 9 versus Ecuador.
The U.S. Has Been Here Before, Sort Of
In the 2009 Confederations Cup, the U.S. advanced out of the group stage to reach the semifinals. The USMNT upset reigning Euro 2008 champ and then-World No. 1, Spain, 2-0 (before losing in the final to Brazil). Current USMNT members, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Tim Howard and Brad Guzan were all there for the Spain upset.
Going back into the time capsule, the U.S. executed a memorable upset of Brazil in the 1998 CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinals just months before Brazil became the World Cup runner-up. Current USMNT striker Christian Pulisic, 17, was born seven months after that Brazil game.
The U.S. Is Not At Full Strength
During the USMNT's 2-1 quarterfinal win over Ecuador, three players were lost to suspension. Midfielder Jermaine Jones was given a red card for touching the face of Ecuador's Antonio Valencia. Meanwhile, second yellow cards of the tournament for forward Bobby Wood and midfielder Alejandro Bedoya suspend them for Tuesday.
On top of this, the USMNT has been playing the whole tournament without longtime first choice striker Jozy Altidore. As a bit of a consolation, defender DeAndre Yedlin, who was suspended for the Ecuador match, will be back Tuesday. For Argentina, forward Nicolás Gaitán is suspended and Di María, who is recovering from injury, should be limited off the bench.
Lionel Messi Looks Outstanding
After injuring his back in a pre-Copa America friendly, Messi sat out Argentina's tournament opener against Chile, a 2-1 win. He then came on as a 61st-minute sub in Argentina's second game against Panama and scored three goals in a 19-minute span. Messi came on as a halftime sub in Game 3 and nutmegged the goalkeeper.
Finally starting in the quarterfinal versus Venezuela, Messi had a goal and two assists. It appears the U.S. is getting the five-time FIFA Ballon d'Or winner as he is peaking.
Home Field Advantage Will Be Key
Tuesday night's game is at NRG Stadium, which has a retractable roof that could help ease some of the heat.
That said, a hot environment can only help the USMNT. Americans are used to playing summer MLS matches in hot cities like Houston, while most of Argentina plays club soccer in Europe during the winter. Argentina has played its first four matches in Santa Clara, Chicago, Seattle and Foxborough.
On top of the physical home field advantage, the U.S. gets to play in front of a patriotic crowd in Houston. USMNT star Clint Dempsey, who grew up in Nacogdoches, will be right at home in Texas.
-- Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.