Tough losses are a fact of life in sports, and sometimes the biggest failures provide the most insightful lessons. The United States’ systematic 4-0 demolition by Argentina on Tuesday night was not one of those defeats.

It’s hard to overstate how poor the Americans were in this Copa America semi-final, how big the egg they laid in arguably the most important match this team has ever played outside of a World Cup really was.

That the tournament hosts weren’t favoured to get to the semis does little to soften the blow. Tuesday’s debacle was a missed opportunity for the U.S. Despite all the talk in the days leading up to the game about how an upset was possible, it was no secret that No. 1-ranked Argentina was always the overwhelming favourite to advance to Sunday’s final in New Jersey.

The fact that they did was no surprise. But the way they secured the victory? The lack of resistance the home team showed in a game of this magnitude, one that non-soccer fans were talking about beforehand? Now that’s a different story.

It’s explainable, of course. The U.S. desperately missed the suspended trio of Alejandro Bedoya, Jermaine Jones and Bobby Wood, far more than anyone could have imagined beforehand. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to start 33-year-old striker Chris Wondolowski in Wood’s stead backfired, even if it was based on the defensible logic of not wanting to create a ripple effect that would have moved players out of other positions.

Still, to not have been in the game at all — to not have managed one solitary shot over the entire 90 minutes — was hard to process afterward. This loss wasn’t as bad as Mexico’s 7-0 capitulation to Chile in the quarterfinals, but it’s still a black eye for a program that came into the match riding a wave of confidence.

“We got dominated tonight,” U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said afterward. Both he and Klinsmann lauded the visitors’ quality, and they’re right: When the Albiceleste plays as well as they did on Tuesday, they can embarrass any team in the world. But Klinsmann contended that the U.S. showed Argentina too much respect after falling behind early on.

“I don’t agree,” captain Michael Bradley said, before adding that he respects his coach’s opinion. In truth, the U.S. looked unprepared mentally and tactically from the moment the contest kicked off. And when Ezequiel Lavezzi headed over U.S. keeper Brad Guzan in the fourth minute, the game was effectively over there and then. Guzan admitted that home side could have responded better.

Record Breaker Messi“We knew it was going to be a hard game before the whistle blew, and then when you go down a goal to the best team in the world at the moment, that early on in a big game, it becomes that much harder,” Guzan said. “We probably gave them too much time and space.”

After such a result there’s plenty of blame to go around, and that goes for both the players and their coach.

Klinsmann didn’t attempt to sugar-coat the performance this time. But while the “respect” comment might not sit well with his troops, he also took time to defend them. “We hit the wall now after a fantastic run in this tournament,” he said. “They should be proud of themselves, what they did over the last couple weeks.”

And they still have one more tough game to go. The U.S. will meet either FIFA’s third-ranked team in Colombia, or fifth-ranked Chile in Saturday’s consolation match in Phoenix.

“These are good teams from down in South America,” Guzan said. “To get to a semi-final of a Copa America is a good accomplishment, but at the same time, we wanted to win tonight. We’ll now look to go to Phoenix and finish on a high.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean they have to take the bronze. A strong, hard-fought showing regardless of the result would go a long way to restoring some the pride that took a bruising against Lionel Messi & Co. Still, it will be hard for Tuesday’s loss not to linger in the players’ minds for some time.

“When you play against one of the best teams in the world, you have to be — I wouldn’t use the word ‘perfect’ — but you know that you have to be on top of every little thing,” Bradley said. “You get to this point, nobody has the mentality that all of a sudden just because you get to the semi-final you’re playing with house money. It doesn’t work like that. The idea was to take it another step further and get to ourselves into a final. For that reason there’s big disappointment.”

Messi meanwhile is on top of world football and there seem to be no team who can stop him on present form. His opponents in the final must be wary of the threat posed by the greatest footballer the world has ever seen.