Lionel Messi made his first start of the Copa America tournament and tied a national record with his 54th international goal as Argentina defeated Venezuela 4-1 on Saturday to set up a semifinal match against the United States.
In Saturday’s other quarterfinal, Eduardo Vargas scored a career-high four goals and Edson Puch added two as Chile, the defending Copa America champions, routed Mexico 7-0.
Messi’s goal in the 60th minute gave Argentina a 3-0 lead and equaled the Argentine record for most international goals set by Gabriel Batistuta, according to Argentina’s governing body. The Barcelona star also took over the Copa America scoring lead with his fourth goal of the tournament.
Argentina now has two days to rest before playing the U.S. in Houston on Tuesday. The Americans have been off since beating Ecuador on Thursday.
With many in the Foxborough, Massachusetts, stadium wearing No. 10 from Messi’s national team and La Liga jerseys, the five-time FIFA Player of the Year started the game after playing a total of just 74 minutes in the three group stage matches.
Just eight minutes in, he connected with Gonzalo Higuain on a long entry pass to make it 1-0.
“He knows that he’s a game-changing player,” Argentina coach Geraldo Martino said. “Everybody’s trying to cancel him. But he knows when to play one against one. He knows when to pass the ball to other players.”
Higuain scored again in the 28th to make it 2-0. Messi then padded the lead in the 60th after taking a pass from Nicolas Gaitan just outside the 6-meter box.
Venezuela finally beat Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero in the 70th minute when Salomon Rondon headed the ball in, nicking the post on the way. But Erik Lamela scored a minute later to make it 4-1.
Argentina is 6-2-2 against the U.S., with the teams last playing to a 1-1 draw in a 2011 friendly in New Jersey. The last American win was in a 1999 friendly.
Recovering from a back injury, Messi sat out the group stage opener this year and played just 29 minutes against Panama — but still managed to record a hat trick. He came on as a second-half substitute in the group stage finale against Bolivia.
Messi played the entire game on Saturday, despite getting a scare when he was taken down from behind in the first half and was slow to get up.
In Santa Clara, California, thousands of Mexico’s frustrated “fanaticos” were already long gone by the time El Tri’s worst defeat in a competitive match finally ended, along with its team-record unbeaten streak at 22 matches. It occurred almost a year to the day since Mexico’s previous loss, to Ecuador in the Copa group stage.
Vargas scored the first goal of his big night in the 44th, five minutes after an offside call cost him another score, then added goals in the 52nd, 57th and 74th.
“Everyone knows that we are the champions and today we showed it,” Vargas said.
Chile matched its scoring total from the entire three-game group stage. La Roja advances to take on Colombia in the semifinals Wednesday in Chicago.
El Tri’s worst competitive loss had been 6-0 to Germany in the group stage of the 1978 World Cup. Mexico was also beaten 8-0 by England in a 1961 friendly.
“First, I’d like to offer my most heartfelt apologies to the Mexican fans,” Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio said. “Today was a shameful presentation, an accident that happens in soccer. Obviously, there are bigger tragedies, but speaking in terms of sports, today was a very, very poor showing on our part.”
Mexico’s fans still regularly used their traditional homophobic chant, even after being urged to stop by tournament organizers, national sport officials and players, especially in the wake of the recent shooting deaths of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.