The bounce of beating Italy

[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 Goodson and 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.

19 comments about "The bounce of beating Italy".
  1. Kent James, March 2, 2012 at 8:16 a.m.

    Very accurate assessment (especially the significance of the different types of games). We need more competition up front; Altidore is improving, but limited. He made a nice lay-off to Dempsey, but Altidore seems more like a supporting player than a go-to guy. For me, a forward needs to be dangerous every time he gets the ball, and unfortunately, when Jozy gets the ball, I am more fearful he'll lose it than hopeful he'll doing something dangerous with it.

  2. Tim Schum, March 2, 2012 at 8:47 a.m.

    Believe that more importance needs to be noted that those players who "made the game" vs. Italy were all seeing significant time playing very competitive matches on an ongoing basis.

    I thought Bradley, in particular, has benefited from playing first team football in Italy as have Bocanegra, Cherundolo,Demsey,Edu and Howard in other highly competitive situations.

    They are not only match fit but having to compete daily for their places in the team (and earning them!) means that they take the field respecting, but not fearing, an Italy or other world class opponent.

    That confidence bred by being immersed daily in various European soccer cauldrons cannot be replicated elsewhere and spreads itself throughout the team.

    Perhaps some are put off by Klinsmann's bringing in several young Germans who qualify to play for the U.S. But underlying it all the coach knows these players have been trained as professionals and, will in time, lend their experience(s) to the team in much quicker fashion than an American-trained player will.

    All-in-all, a wonderful win for the U.S!

  3. Bryan Kempf, March 2, 2012 at 8:56 a.m.

    I agree with Kent. I don't understand why we keep praising a guy that held the ball up a couple of times in 90 min. Jozy losses possession more than half of the time... Truly challenges for a quarter of the long balls to him... And rarely scores. How is he an automatic start?

  4. R2 Dad, March 2, 2012 at 9:16 a.m.

    Altidore = Heskey. It's a make-do when you don't have an out-and-out striker.

  5. Bill Airsman, March 2, 2012 at 9:23 a.m.

    Agree with Kent also, excellent analysis.

  6. Mike Gaynes, March 2, 2012 at 9:52 a.m.

    Agreed. Uncommonly good assessment from Ridge, and a cogent observation from Tim. Klinsmann's influence cannot be underestimated... this is clearly a more confident team.

    The US backline remains extremely vulnerable to opposing speed, and there don't seem to be any pacy central defenders coming up through the ranks... perhaps one or two will pop up during qualifying.

    And as for the need for a dangerously creative striker... those don't grow on trees, especially US trees. We've never had one who could kill off the dribble (Wynalda was more of an attacking winger) and I doubt more "competition" up front will change that. Jozy can hold and he can finish, and he and Dempsey are the best front teaming we have at the moment.

  7. Walt Pericciuoli, March 2, 2012 at 10:03 a.m.

    We aren't going to find a replacement forward until we give him a chance in game situations. If we stick with Altidore(the slowest and clumsiest forward I have ever seen)he plays better with a second forward with him. Right now, our team isn't set up that way.If we play with just the one up top, that one has to be able to get in behind defenders, beat defenders 1v1 as well as hold the ball waiting for others to get forward.So far,Jozy has shown he can only do one of those things occasionally.

  8. Brad Matheny, March 2, 2012 at 10:24 a.m.

    GREAT JOB beating Italy, who cares which players Italy used; WE WON with the players we used! Yahoo, and awesome job US men! Now how do we position ourselves better going forward? 1) faster recovery runs in transition (to defense) by our outside forwards in the 4-3-3; what ever happened to IMMEDIATE CHASE? Biggest recurring issue affecting our US men across many of the friendly games is “other teams continuously exploit our lack of immediate pressure to the left and right of the center circle on our half of the field; this is where the slicing penetrating balls keep originating from their play-makers to their forwards”. You cannot blame it on our defense who are man marked and then get overloaded, and have to make a calculated trade off in marking on the fly and get beat by a diagonal ball through and behind. You cannot blame it on our defensive mids who are only 2 guys against the 3 or 4 the opposition has pressed up quickly into midfield; our 2 def mids cannot stop their 4 from passing around or over or even through. Our 2 can only channel and delay until the supporting forwards DO THEIR FRIGGIN JOB FASTER AND recover to block out the outside options. THE BLAME FOR THIS CONSISTENT ISSUE resides with the outside forwards not transitioning fast enough nor being urgent enough in their recovery runs when we lose the ball. It’s the same old attitude of forwards taking two seconds to wallow in their disappointment that the play they tried to create did not pan out, and in those two seconds the opposition has 4 or 5 steps which are way more than is needed to catch us “numbers down” in the middle third. Perhaps Bradley and Edu should be louder in requesting immediate transition/recovery from the forwards. On the other hand, I LOVE THAT OUR OUTSIDE BACKS LOOK TO GET FORWARD, soo many opportunities come from this type of play. Johnson laid a ball off to Shea who shot just wide right; BUT IT WAS A GREAT CHANCE! Cherundolo laid off a brilliant combination play ball to someone who did not capitalize; BUT AGAIN A BRILLIANT OPPORTUNITY! Keep up the good work US. Don’t Tread on US!

  9. Scott O'Connor, March 2, 2012 at 10:26 a.m.

    Klinsmann dropping Boyd into the game to me was a message to Lazy Jozy. JK went against soccer wisdom in giving a guy who's never started for a professional club team his first Senior International Cap. It says, "Hey we're not happy with what we've got up top and I'm going to try to find someone who can fix that." Hopefully Jozy will get the message and start to apply himself more in his profession.

  10. Amos Annan, March 2, 2012 at 10:37 a.m.

    "winning" makes you a brilliant coach

  11. Karl Schreiber, March 2, 2012 at 11:01 a.m.

    A win, even in a scrimmage, offers ENCOURAGEMENT. Our coach knows the weak spots. Heck, our defense looks almost as flawed as FC Bayern Munich's (except our GK is better than theirs)! -- I really enjoyed watching our U-23 MNT against Mexico that day. This builds CONFIDENCE in the future of the US Men's Team! -- I wish they'd show the Algarve Cup on TV!

  12. Stanley Scott, March 2, 2012 at 11:52 a.m.

    For me, the Man of the Match, without a doubt, was STEVE CHERUNDULO. That might be the best game I've EVER seen him play. He was in the play, actually ahead of the play. Moved fwd, passed smartly, but stuck in nose in plays...almost knew where Italy was going. Unsung, but VERY well done, IMO.

  13. tim nash, March 2, 2012 at 12:32 p.m.

    Okay, USA B+ beats Italy C- away with some key saves by Timmy. Nice night indeed but let's keep it in perspective. That said, what I really, really like is the growing harmony I see in terms of philosophy at the Nat team levels across the board. I see much more positivity, constructive energy and attacking sense from teams coached by Klinnsman, Porter, Ramos,... than I've seen previously (other than from the women of course!). Not sure if there is a "harmony" mandate from USS but it certainly is fun to see us going out to win with flair as illustrated by the U23s versus Mexico the other night (other than the last 20 minutes). Clearly our senior guys aren't all the way there to 18+ deep but as Duece said, we are on our way. Go USA!

  14. Allan Lindh, March 2, 2012 at 2:35 p.m.

    Don't forget Jonathon Spector. He just keeps paying his dues, and the last two years in England he has really progressed. Cherundulo can't last forever, and it is wonderful that these quick young guys from Germany have shown up (stop whining about it, we gave Italy De Rossi), but experience at the top level on the back line counts for everything, and Spectors getting better every year. Time for Cameron to go to England.

  15. George Hoyt, March 2, 2012 at 10:43 p.m.

    Great commentary here. The first team experience of our players abroad makes a huge difference. Even toward the end of the game where we defended madly it did not devolve into panic. Nor did it seem like our attack was ever frantic. These are good steps to me. We are not quite to dangerous, but we're getting there. Love the strikers growing on trees, Mike. It would have been interesting to see how Torres and Donivan would have livened things up a bit. We need some defenders with Desmond Armstrong speed (kudos on the hall of fame).

  16. Bill Anderson, March 3, 2012 at 9:45 a.m.

    I have been a very harsh critic of Michael Bradley, but after watching the game again, I believe he may have grown up enough to play the holding mid. His discipline, sorely lacking in the past, was the key to the success of the team. Gone were the pointless runs and horrible passing that has marked his play in the past. Hope it was not just a one game scenario, and he is ready to be the player we need to hold the middle of the park.

  17. Bryan Kempf, March 3, 2012 at 12:07 p.m.

    Does anyone else like Benny feilhaber? At one time, he looked to be the creative midfielder we need. Does playing for the revs hurt his chances?

  18. Kent James, March 4, 2012 at 12:32 p.m.

    Bryan, yes, I completely agree with you. Not sure why he fell of the MNT radar (I think he had an injury that kept him out for while), but unless his play has greatly deteriorated, he should be in the mix (and the recent posting of his bicycle kick is evidence enough for me that he's got some kick left!).
    George, very perceptive analysis; the composure of the team was quite impressive and a key element of any success. Although we did not have the ball as much as I would have liked, when we had it, it seemed like we were having the patience to try to do the right things with it (I thought Dempsey excelled in this area).

  19. Scott Miller, March 6, 2012 at 7:47 p.m.

    The defense's reliance on the offside trap will be our downfall. We need much better communication and leadership in the back.

    We need two central defenders with outstanding speed and high soccer IQ. Maybe we have them, but they are being coached to play the trap?

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