HOUSTON • Lionel Messi stood calmly over the ball about 25 metres from the goal, contemplating the possibilities in front of him, which for him, often seem almost infinite.
He had already made one spectacular pass that led to a goal for Argentina, and now he had a chance for another moment of brilliance.
Messi took two steps and then struck the ball with his left instep, curling it over the wall of defenders and back down into the absolute top right corner of the goal, where it stung the net with such force that the goal posts rattled.
United States goalkeeper Brad Guzan had no chance, and neither did his team.
Behind Messi's almost predictable mastery, Argentina thrashed the US 4-0 in their Copa America Centenario semi-final on Tuesday in a game that re-affirmed the forward's widely-accepted status as the world's best player.
He set up the first goal with a clever pass to Ezequiel Lavezzi in the third minute, scored the second with the exquisitely-placed free kick later in the half and finally scooped up a loose ball in front of the goal in the 86th minute and fed Gonzalo Higuain for the Napoli striker's second goal of the game and Argentina's fourth.
Lionel Messi was involved in three of Argentina's goals - scoring once and setting up two
The dimunitive player dribbled around the US defenders and stretched them wide, probed for cracks and darted past stumbling Americans. He lifted incisive passes onto the welcoming feet of his team-mates and scored what was perhaps the goal of the tournament.
It was a demonstration of total superiority that left US coach Jurgen Klinsmann saying that the best team - by far - won.
"After that early goal, I think our players could feel that, probably at every position on the field, they were just better than we are," the German said.
That was particularly the case up front.
Messi's goal was his 55th for his country, pushing him past Gabriel Batistuta as Argentina's leading scorer, and he will have a chance to score more in this tournament.
Argentina completed 625 passes compared with 191 by the Americans, who did not have a single shot on goal.
"We got dominated," said Sunil Gulati, the president of the US Soccer Federation. "Getting here was an accomplishment. But it doesn't feel quite the way it did a few hours ago."
Klinsmann lamented that his players appeared to show too much respect for Argentina's talent.
"In general, we had too much respect, we had far too much respect, and they were able to play their game," Klinsmann said.
On Sunday, Argentina will play the winner of today's (Singapore time) semi-final in Chicago between Colombia and Chile with hopes of winning their first major trophy since the 1993 Copa America.
For all his talent and all his championship success at club level with Barcelona, Messi has never won a major international tournament with Argentina.
But he has come agonisingly close. The Argentinians lost in the final at the 2014 World Cup and again at last year's Copa America, so Sunday's final will be Messi's third chance in three years.
Argentina coach Gerardo Martino was a happy man after watching his team destroy the US. But he said the only measure of the side's success would be outright victory in Sunday's final in East Rutherford.
"How we are judged will depend exclusively on the outcome of the final," he said.
NEW YORK TIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE