[USA CONFIDENTIAL] The sun rose over Genoa and the rest of Italy Thursday, not long after the final whistle blew on a 1-0 defeat inflicted on the Azzurri by the USA. And life seemed undisturbed. La Gazzetta dello Sport blared a headline best described as innocuous:
Italy sunk by the USA
At the Euros it will have to be different
Pretty tame stuff. One might expect more virulence in Italy, where calcio is rivaled only by family and Catholicism for importance. But a hot chase for the scudetto between giants AC Milan and Juventus is dominating the public interest, capital rivals Roma and Lazio play this weekend, just three months ago the Azzurri lost a friendly to Uruguay, and the team’s fate in the European Championship is all that matters, so as Michael Bradley might say, "Così è la vita" (that’s life).
That the Americans hit the Italians on an off-day can’t be questioned. Just like the astonishing semifinal victory over Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup, the Euro heavies had more than enough chances to win the game and didn’t convert them. Tim Howard had a much tougher day against the Spaniards and needed more courageous blocks than he did in Genoa to post the zero, yet he and his teammates still blanked – not just beat, but shut out – one of the world’s powerhouses.
Soccer coaches must be part-time psychologists, since managing moods and personalities is on the checklist along with tactics and personnel. Klinsmann has brought fresh hope to a lot of players who believed, rightly or wrongly, that predecessor Bob Bradley was locked into a group of maybe 15 or 16 nearly impossible to dislodge. (Of course, had players as capable as Fabian Johnson, Danny Williams and Tim Chandler come along three years ago there might have been a lot more competition for playing time in a few positions, not just left back.)
Experienced players are well aware that friendly victories – and defeats as well -- aren’t all that perhaps the fans and media crank them up to be, yet team confidence is greatly dependent on success as a group. To players like Johnson and Chandler, who weren’t around when the USA beat Spain or stunned Algeria in the final seconds at the 2010 World Cup, playing with a core of veterans – Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Maurice Edu, Howard – in a major win cements their places in the collective. Teammates know they can get the job done and while "trust" may seem a strange word in this context it is just as vital as cohesion and talent and determination.
Qualifying is critically important, but only a complete catastrophe can trouble the USA in its semifinal group of Antigua & Barbuda, Guatemala and Jamaica. Observers who cite those games as true tests of Klinsmann’s acumen are grabbing at straws; they will challenge the Americans’ psyche and poise, but not their talent or ability. The rugged yet modest opposition the U.S. encounters in the semifinal round increases the importance of beating a class team such as Italy, whose superior talent must be muted by effort and patience.
Even an Italy in low gear can slice apart a lot of foes, and for much of the first half, Sebastian Giovinco and Andrea Pirlo did just that. Yet aside from a superb Howard kick save in the fourth minute, most of the Italian shots came from middle distances or sharp angles. The only other shots Howard had to launch himself for went wide, such as Montolivo’s blast in stoppage time that missed the top corner by about a yard. Most of them went straight to the keeper. Call it good luck or bad finishing, the net result is the same.
Where the Americans really got lucky was toeing the offside tightrope; one tight call looked to be blown, and several others were close enough to perhaps be called the other way, but each time the flag went up. Not just centerbacks Clarence Goodsonand Carlos Bocanegra were exposed, a few balls floated over the head of left back Johnson and yielded dangerous low crosses, but those played over the middle often drew the flag. Ironically, the masters of the offside trap were hoisted on their own petard, for once.
Lost amid the first-half Italian surge, Dempsey’s cool finish of a quick buildup, and desperate defending in the late going were some smooth, crisp sequences borne in the back line. Johnson, obviously tasked to get forward as much as he could, took off a few too many times but looked dangerous when he did, and curled a cross that Jozy Altidore fed to Dempsey for a classic counterpunch goal. Again, as had been the case against Spain, of a few chances the Americans converted enough of them to win. No shame in that.
The bounce of beating Italy will resurface in a few months, when a run of three more friendlies leading into the June 8 start of qualifying rekindles those good feelings. The Scots and Canadians will be that much more eager to slay the conquerors of Italy – the Brazilians won’t much care – and so the intensity, if not the opposition, could be greater than it was in Genoa, where collectively and individually, a team searching for a fresh identity got a big win by tweaking its current one.