KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany -- As the final whistle blew, ending the United States' improbable 1-1 draw with Italy on Saturday night, I knew that I had just witnessed one of the more important results ever recorded by the U.S. national team.
The story of the Americans playing a man down for 43 minutes and still holding out against Italy will no doubt become the stuff of legend. Yet a nagging sensation kept gnawing at me, like an impatient child constantly tugging at my shirtsleeve, and it was this: The Americans could have, and perhaps should have, won this game.
But given the crazy series of events that unfolded, the U.S. could just as easily have lost it as well, and despite any misgivings, what should ultimately be remembered is the massive amount of guts that the Americans displayed. Still, even some of the players admitted to mixed feelings.
"It's bittersweet," said midfielder Landon Donovan, who had a much improved showing when compared to his performance against the Czechs. "We had chances to win the game, even being a man down. If that's an 11 versus 10 game, we win the match."
Unfortunately, that's not how the game finished up. After the teams traded goals inside of five minutes midway through the first half, the Americans appeared to be in the driver's seat when Italian midfielder Daniele De Rossi was sent off for jabbing his elbow into Brian McBride's head. But the advantage proved short-lived, as the Yanks ignored the adage that when you're a man up, you can't give the referee any reason to even things out.
Incredibly, the U.S. not only did this once, but twice. Pablo Mastroeni's rash challenge on Andrea Pirlo to end the first half drew a straight red. Eddie Pope then compounded his team's misery just two minutes into the second half, when he picked up his second yellow card for a tackle from behind on Alberto Gilardino.
Afterward, the Americans could barely contain their angst over the calls, with captain Claudio Reyna going so far as to say that referee Jorge Larrionda "ruined the game for us." It was felt that Mastroeni's challenge should have only drawn yellow, while Eddie Pope's first caution, for pulling down Gilardino, should never have been given. On Pope's second yellow, he claimed he got the ball.
But while Larrionda certainly didn't do the Americans many favors, the unfortunate reality is that the Yanks have only themselves to blame. Conveniently forgotten is that Mastroeni's poorly timed tackle occurred not only in front of the referee, but a good 70 yards from the American goal, making it totally unnecessary. And Pope should have known better than to engage in a risky challenge when already carrying a yellow card, especially given how tightly the game was being called.
Fortunately, the Yanks received a boost from an unlikely source, that being the decidedly pro-American crowd.
"The fan support today really motivated us and really lifted us up," said defender Oguchi Onyewu. "It didn't feel like we were a man down, and I think if you watched the game, it didn't look like we were a man down."
Indeed, a mazy run from Donovan in the 63rd minute saw him set up Brian McBride with a glorious chance that the Fulham forward shanked wide. McBride was again the goat three minutes later when his offside position negated DaMarcus Beasley's apparent game-winner.
The Italians gradually took control, but the entire U.S. team continued to display the kind of commitment that had been lacking against the Czechs. And when Italy did manage to break through, goalkeeper Kasey Keller came up with two huge stops to save the day.
"Today we closed them down, we tackled, and we got unfortunate [with the cards] as well," said Keller. "But nobody quit. Everyone fought and fought, and I was just so happy to be able to help then out with a save or two because I would have been absolutely sick if I couldn't have come up big for them today after the effort that they put forth."
It's the kind of effort that should allow the American sporting public to feel good about its team again. It's one thing to lose, it's quite another to lose feebly like the U.S. did on Monday. But an utterly courageous display was put forth against Italy, one that has an important fringe benefit: The Americans are still alive.
Although it will take a convergence of events to get the U.S. into the second round, it is doable. The cleanest scenario is one where the Americans beat Ghana, while Italy defeats the Czechs. Other scenarios exist where goal difference comes into play, although all of them are remote. But that matters little to head coach Bruce Arena.
"I'm happy that Game 3 means something," said Arena.
As for Game 2, its meaning should linger in the hearts of American fans for years to come.
Player Ratings (from 1-10):
Kasey Keller, 7 - Finally, Keller has a World Cup game that can bring a smile to his face. The two saves he made from Del Piero were pure class, and he covered his box well, especially late in the match.
Steve Cherundolo, 5 - Just when it seemed like he was out of gas, the Hanover defender turned it up a notch. He covered lots of ground on the right wing, although his crossing was inconsistent.
Eddie Pope, 2 - While Pope claims he got the ball on his second yellow card, the bottom line is he ignored how tight the game was being called, and took a huge risk that backfired for the Americans. Pope was also guilty of not staying with Gilardino when the Italian scored his team's only goal.
Oguchi Onyewu, 7 - An immense game from the 24-year-old. He started off conceding too many fouls, but to his credit, adjusted, ultimately winning his titanic battle with Luca Toni. Onyewu had several vital clearances, including one late after a quick Italian passing sequence involving Gennaro Gattuso and Del Piero.
Carlos Bocanegra, 6 - Had some shaky moments in the first half, but improved greatly as the game progressed. "Boca" had a vital clearing header in the game's waning moments.
Clint Dempsey, 6 - Just what the doctor ordered, giving the Yanks a great attacking attitude in the first half. He should earn himself another start against Ghana.
Pablo Mastroeni, 3 - This grade comes with a huge caveat. Mastroeni's opening tackle on Francesco Totti that set the tone for the whole evening, and his distribution was miles better than against the Czechs. But after De Rossi was sent off, Mastroeni needed to play with more caution, and didn't, much to the Yanks' regret. His actual play would have earned him a 7.
Claudio Reyna, 7 - Ran his socks off and kept what remained of his team organized. He also was the hub of the American attack and helped the U.S. keep possession when it mattered most.
Bobby Convey, 5 - Had some good moments, and his crosses were of higher quality than against the Czechs, but his 16th minute miss from just 12 yards is one that will keep him up at night.
Landon Donovan, 6 - Toward the end of the first half, the Landon of old began to emerge, and he finished with an outstanding second half, as the additional space created by the red cards suited him. Now the trick is to do it when it's 11 on 11.
Brian McBride, 4 - While credit must be given for McBride's tireless work up top, it was his offside position which nullified Beasley's apparent goal, and he missed badly three minutes earlier following a great feed from Donovan.
Jimmy Conrad, 6 - Did well under difficult circumstances. Seemed caught short of pace at times, but had a great tackle in the 82nd minute to stifle an Italian attack.
DaMarcus Beasley, 6 - At last, a glimpse of the old "Run DMB," in that he finally wreaked some havoc in the attacking half. If Brian McBride had been standing about three feet further to his right, then Beasley's goal would have made him the toast of K'town. It will be interesting to see if it is enough to get him back in the starting lineup.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at email@example.com