A penalty kick by Landon Donovan near the end of the first half provided the lead that a 10-man U.S. team surrendered to a pair of strikes by Guiseppe Rossi and Daniele De Rossi's long-range winning goal.
A red card to midfielder Ricardo Clark in the 34th minute may or may not been warranted, though any time a player flies into a tackle very late and with one foot high enough to whack an opponent on the knee - even one as renowned for rough fouls as Gennaro Gattuso - he's in hot water.
Yet Clark's ejection wouldn't have happened had he recognized the situation when he poked the ball away from Andreas Pirlo. It ran to Gattuso, who touched it once before Clark's desperate lunge caught him on the right knee. Out came the red card from referee Pablo Pozo, who was to further anger American players and fans in the second half when he ignored an elbow to the jaw of Donovan and turned down appeals for a penalty kick when Italian defender Nicola Legrottaglie bowled over Donovan.
One could certainly argue that Pozo's interpretation of these incidents lacked consistency yet an unsympathetic referee was only as detrimental as the USA allowed him to be. Before Clark's ejection, left back Jonathan Bornstein had poked a through ball past Tim Howard for an own goal that was disallowed for offside and Clark had let a pass run past him in a belief the coast was clear, only to lose it to a fast-closing opponent.
Central partner Michael Bradley, one of the few U.S. players to turn in a solid 90 minutes, ceded possession by hitting a square ball well over the head of an unmarked Bornstein. While showing admirable pluck and poise against the world champion, still the Americans littered their play with errors of myriad origin.
Italy scored its first goal in the 58th minute. Shortly after Rossi replaced Gattuso, he pressured Benny Feilhaber, who had collected ball from Dempsey after an interception by Bradley. All three midfielders were bunched in the U.S. half of the center circle as Bradley, who thought Dempsey's pass was intended for him, tried to trap it.
Instead, Rossi knocked the ball toward the U.S. goal, and thus Bradley and Dempsey had no chance to impede the Italian forward as he dribbled at a retreating back line and smashed a 25-yard shot that whistled past keeper Tim Howard.
Coach Bob Bradley held off making his first substitution until the 66th minute, bringing on Charlie Davies for Jozy Altidore, who had won the penalty kick converted by Donovan when he collected a long ball from Feilhaber and twisted inside defender Girogio Chiellini to draw a tripping foul.
The change did nothing to address Italy's dominance in midfield, as the tired Americans were leaving more and more gaps trying to cover the field in a 4-4-1 formation deployed after Clark went off, with Feilhaber sliding into the middle alongside Bradley and Donovan on the right. A shanked clearance by Onyewu, under no pressure, conceded a corner kick that produced a chance that Rossi hit just as badly.
U.S. players were still re-setting defensively after clearing a ball out of their penalty area in the 72nd minute when De Rossi pushed the ball forward uncontested to drill a shot from more than 30 yards. Oguchi Onyewu tried to deflect the skipping shot with his right foot and Howard may have been screened by him or Jay DeMerit as well, and the hard-hit shot nestled just inside the post.
The Italians relaxed just enough to permit the U.S. a smooth passing sequence out of the back and a Bornstein cross that Gianluigi Buffon collected near the edge of the penalty area. Minutes after DeRossi's goal, Bornstein had stopped Rossi with a confident tackle inside the box, and he won another ball in midfield that provided Dempsey with a long-distance chance he put on frame.
Legrottaglie felled Donovan in the 82nd minute as a chip from Dempsey floated over both their heads. Both needed a few minutes to recover and the break gave the Americans enough rest to push forward across the midfield line in search of a tying goal.
Bradley chipped a ball to substitute Sacha Kljestan on the left, and Kljestan cut inside to try a dipping shot from about 25 yards that dropped just a foot over the bar. A few minutes later, the U.S. won a corner kick that Donovan delivered onto the head of Charlie Davies, but his mistimed effort ballooned high.
After Howard stoned Luca Toni on a through ball two minutes into stoppage time, Rossi first-timed a feed from Pirlo after he'd evaded a sideline challenge by a gassed DeMerit and cut the ball back from the end line. The New Jersey-born striker has netted three goals in just six full international appearances for Italy.
A few breaks will certainly aid the Americans when they face Brazil Thursday but more sharpness of touch and mind will be needed regardless of the opposition.
June 15, 2009 in Tshwane/Pretoria, South Africa.
Italy 3 USA 1.
Goals: Rossi 58, De Rossi (Chiellini) 72, Rossi (Pirlo) 94+; Donovan (pen.) 41.
Italy -- Buffon, Zambrotta, Chiellini, Legrottaglie, Grosso, Gattuso (Rossi, 57), De Rossi, Pirlo, Iaquinta, Gilardino (Toni, 69), Camoranesi (Montolivo, 57).
USA -- Howard, Spector, Onyewu, DeMerit, Bornstein ( Kljestan, 86), Feilhaber (Beasley, 72), Clark, Bradley, Dempsey, Donovan, Altidore (Davies, 66).
Stats Summary: Italy/USA
Shots on Goal: 13/4
Corner Kicks: 10/1
Yellow cards: Italy -- Legrottaglie 11, Grosso 25; USA -- Bornstein 20.
Red Card -- USA --Clark 33.
Referee: Pablo Pozo (CHI)