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U.S. Soccer Team Faces Argentina In Copa Semifinal


Tonight, Houston is hosting what could be one of the biggest games in U.S. men's soccer history. Let's make the case. First, the U.S. has, after 20-plus years, finally made it back to the semifinals of the Copa America, one of the major tournaments of the soccer world. Second, they're up against FIFA's number one team, Argentina, and the best player in the world, Lionel Messi. Lastly, who knew they'd get this far? Houston Chronicle reporter Martin Hajovsky will be at the game tonight. I asked him just how big a deal this match is for the U.S.

MARTIN HAJOVSKY: I think it's pretty big for the city of Houston, certainly, but also for the United States because I guess the high-water mark for the U.S. in international competitions was the Confederations Cup in 2009 in South Africa and - where we lost in the final to Brazil - but in the game before that beat Spain that went on to win the World Cup the very next year. So other than that, Copa America - which is South America's championship, it must be said, but this is the 100th anniversary - and for the first time ever, we're playing it outside of South America in the United States. Got to get those American dollars.

CORNISH: And Argentina hasn't clinched a major pro tournament title in more than 20 years. So there's a lot at stake for them, too, right? Tell us what they're - what the U.S. is up against in this Argentina team.

HAJOVSKY: Well, Argentina, they were the runner-up in the last World Cup, losing to Germany in extra time. But Argentina has not won a major tournament since the Copa America in the early '90s. And with Lionel Messi, Messi has won, you know, a boatload of Champions Leagues, and he's widely recognized as the best player in the world. But for Argentina, they have yet to win a major tournament with him there. You know, if he's spoken in the same breath as Pele and Maradona - and that's probably very deserved - but they won World Cups and Copa Americas as well. And Argentina has yet to do that with him.

CORNISH: You know, when we started, you said this was a big deal not just for the U.S. but also for the city of Houston. Give us a sense of the mood. How excited are people? Are you seeing people in the streets? What's going on?

HAJOVSKY: Houston is a very international city. It's a very diverse city. If you're going to believe the U.S. Census Bureau, it's the most diverse city in America. And so it has a vibrant soccer culture. And a few weeks ago, the - Colombia and Costa Rica played to over 40,000 here. And this game tonight has sold out already. So it is a big deal, and it brings a lot of attention to the city. And it's a real shot in the arm to the soccer culture in the city.

So that's all part of the culture here is everyone kind of gets along - even Mexico fans because Mexico, of course, crashed out 7 to 0. So it's - you know, they're our great rival. And so we've gotten farther than they have. But what you'll see a lot here is the U.S. and Mexico fans are kind of shoulder to shoulder. So you get to a point where it's like your big brother or your little brother, you know? someone - you can beat them up, but you certainly don't want anyone else to.

CORNISH: Are there a lot of soccer bars - football bars in Houston? And I mean, what have you - what are you seeing out there in terms of people showing their colors?

HAJOVSKY: Oh, way more than before. You've seen a lot of colors - a lot of Colombians, a lot of Chileans, a great deal of Costa Ricans a few weeks ago when they were playing here and then Argentinians because there is a very large Argentinian community in the city. So you're seeing the alba celeste colors all throughout.

CORNISH: What's our sense of how this could play out tonight? I mean, what are people betting on?

HAJOVSKY: Well, you know, Argentina is of course a favorite. And they should be the favorite because they're such a highly ranked side and they have some of the best players in the world playing for them. But the United States, I would have to say, would have what we call a punter's chance because they've shown a lot of grit and a lot of fire and they're certainly not going to quit anytime soon. So Jurgen Klinsmann has them playing quite well.

CORNISH: That's Martin Hajovsky of the Houston Chronicle. The game between the U.S. and Argentina kicks off tonight at 9:00 p.m. Eastern. Martin will be watching. Thanks so much.

HAJOVSKY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.