Lionel Messi didn't score, but he didn't need to. Slashing dribbles, audacious flicks, and relentless runs unhinged the U.S. flanks and carved open gaps in the middle for Juan Roman Riquelme and on the flanks for Gabriel Heinze. Hernan Crespo scored the first two goals, substitute Pablo Aimar added a crushing third with a pulverizing header, and fellow sub Carlos Tevez added the fourth on a breakaway.
Eddie Johnson won and converted a penalty kick for a 1-0 lead in the ninth minute but seldom afterward could the Americans threaten Argentina's goal. A promising first half gave way to ineptitude, with the U.S. seldom able to connect passes through midfield and its longer balls easily swallowed up by the opposition.
Argentina's tactical fouling aborted any American attempts to establish tempo. Feilhaber won a ball in midfield and released it for Johnson, who was body-blocked by Roberto Ayala. Feilhaber started a dribble, Juan Sebatian Veron knocked him down. And so it went.
The attack petered out so often in the neutral third the Americans didn't win a single corner kick.
Their few free kicks amounted to little; Feilhaber drove the ball wide, Justin Mapp blazed over the crossbar. Another Feilhaber free kick, from the flank to the near post, didn't reach Herculez Gomez trying to flick it across the goalmouth.
A thrilling through ball sliced by the outside of Feilhaber's right foot sent Johnson into the area to be sandwiched by Gabriel Milito and Ayala. Johnson put away the penalty himself, driving the shot to keeper Robert Abbondanzieri's left, but less than two minutes later, Argentina had tied the game on a free kick.
Feilhaber had grabbed Riquelme's arm, or vice versa, and a ball chipped over the U.S. defensive wall was touched on by Heinze as Keller came out too slowly, too late, and Crespo smashed it into the net.
Near the end of the half, Keller came up with a good save on a fierce shot off the foot of Veron, getting enough of his left glove on the ball to deflect it onto the crossbar.
Central defenders Jimmy Conrad and Jay DeMerit won most of the balls in the air but were exposed when it was on the ground.
Argentina took the lead in the 64th minute when the backline collapsed on Messi's dribble and one-two with Riquelme to leave Crespo wide open. He drilled a shot along the ground at which Keller lunged awkwardly.
Bradley's substitution of Ben Olsen, whose tenacity on the right side of midfield gave the U.S. some bite, with Eddie Gaven encouraged Messi to race forward even more often. Messi brushed past Gaven and played a ball right past a static Ricardo Clark, then ran onto Riquelme's return pass to set up Crespo for the second goal.
Clark lost the mark on Aimar, who zoomed through the middle to put away a cross by Heinze from the left corner, which was wide open because Wynne had stepped forward to contest the first pass.
Tevez scored the fourth after Riquelme lofted a ball that caught Conrad and DeMerit flat-footed. Keller backed up as Tevez approached and couldn't get near the low shot.
The U.S. effort, aside from the last few minutes, can't be faulted. The disparity in talent is no surprise. There were some tired legs and long faces during the last 15 minutes, and how well those elements can be shored up prior to Tuesday's match against Paraguay, which hammered Colombia, 5-0, will determine the team's fate.
Copa America, Group C
June 28 in Maracaibo, Venezuela
USA 1 Argentina 4
Goals: Johnson (pen.) 9; Crespo (Heinze) 11, Crespo (Messi) 64, Aimar (Heinze) 78, Tevez (Riquelme) 85.
USA - Keller, Wynne, DeMerit, Conrad, Bornstein, Feilhaber, Clark (Beckerman, 79), Olsen (Gaven, 62), Mapp, Twellman (Gomez, 69), Johnson.
Argentina - Abbondanzieri, Zanetti, Ayala, G. Milito, Heinze, Mascherano Veron, Cambiasso (Aimar, 58), Riquelme, Messi (Tevez, 79), Crespo.
Corner Kicks: 0-5
Yellow cards: USA - Bornstein 73; Argentina -- G. Milito 58.
Referee: Carlos Candia (Chicago).