It's safe to say that angst, hand-wringing, and gnashing of teeth weren't originally on the itinerary of the U.S. men's national team when the squad left for the Confederations Cup last week. But in the wake of its 3-1 loss to Italy on Monday, all three elements are now present in abundance, as a game effort from the Americans wasn't enough to overcome a dubious red card to U.S. midfielder Ricardo Clark as well as two goals from Italy's U.S.-born forward, Giuseppe Rossi.
Was Clark's ejection questionable? Let's just say that there are works of fiction with more basis in fact than the U.S. midfielder's 33rd-minute dismissal. Yes, Clark deserved to be cautioned for his knee-high tackle on Italy's Gennaro Gattuso, and it was a completely unnecessary foul at that, coming as it did in the middle third of the field. But some other rugged fouls didn't even merit a booking from referee Pablo Pozo, and his decision to send off Clark defies belief.
It left the U.S. to battle on gamely with 10 men, and even take a shocking 1-0 lead through Landon Donovan's 41st-minute penalty after Giorgio Chiellini had taken down Jozy Altidore.
And for a while it looked like the U.S. might hold out for a priceless victory. That is, until Rossi, perhaps the most hated man in American soccer circles for spurning the U.S., entered the match in the 56th minute. Soon after, he picked the pocket of American midfielder Benny Feilhaber and proceeded to launch a pile driver from more than 30 yards out that left goalkeeper Tim Howard with no chance.
Italy later took the lead through another long-distance effort from Daniele De Rossi, before his American-born teammate wrapped things up with another superb strike deep into stoppage time after a gorgeous pass from Andrea Pirlo.
But it was Rossi's first goal that crystallized just what is missing from the U.S. team. Yes, the Americans are athletic and show plenty of industry. But the kind of magic and killer instinct that Rossi showed is for the most part absent, and that's even with a tip of the cap to the immense effort turned in by Donovan.
For all the criticism Donovan receives for disappearing against top-tier opponents, this was a game in which he was active, and he twice set the table for teammates with excellent passes. Michael Bradley scuffed his attempt in the 26th minute, and three minutes later Altidore, with just goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon to beat, opted to make the rather mind-boggling decision to pass instead of shoot.
That leads to perhaps the biggest lesson the U.S. can take from the match. When you have a chance to really put your foot to the throat of a team like Italy, you do it, and don't look back. That the U.S. took the lead anyway doesn't change that. Imagine how the game would have played out if the Americans had been up by two goals.
Of course, we'll never know due to Clark's sending off, which not only left the U.S. short-handed, but left coach Bob Bradley in a position where he didn't learn much that was new about his team. Sure, there were some good individual performances, with Jonathan Spector taking another step toward establishing himself in the lineup. But the big question going forward is: Can the U.S. consistently threaten the world's better teams from open play? They did this in spurts against Italy at even strength, but the rest of the match was an exercise in the kind of tough defending and organization that are already trademarks of the U.S. side.
Fortunately, Thursday's match against Brazil awaits, one that hopefully will be angst-free regardless of the result.
Player ratings: (1-10; 5 = average)
GK, Tim Howard, 6 -- Solid decision-making, but his handling and redirecting of hard shots wasn't as sharp as it usually is. Still made two outstanding saves late to keep the U.S. in it.
D, Jonathan Bornstein, 4 -- Not the sharpest of games from the Chivas USA defender, as plenty of service came in from Mauro Camoranesi. Nearly scored a horrific own goal, only to be bailed out by an offside call.
D, Oguchi Onyewu, 6 -- Dominant in the air and delivered some good passes out of the back. Replays appeared to show that he should have done better to block De Rossi's game-winning goal, but it was still an excellent performance from Onyewu.
D, Jay DeMerit, 5 -- Played well for the most part, but could have been quicker to step to Rossi on Italy's equalizer. Was clearly out of gas by the time Pirlo skinned him in the run-up to Rossi's second.
D, Jonathan Spector, 6 -- Was tested often by Fabio Grosso on the overlap and held up well. Fortunate to not get punished on a set piece when his mark, Nicola Legrottaglie, headed wide in the first half. Was much better denying service in the second half.
M, Landon Donovan, 6 -- Looked aggressive under difficult circumstances and worked his socks off. He probably should have had at least one assist, and he took his penalty with confidence.
M, Ricardo Clark, 3 -- There's no doubting the harshness of his red card, but there was no need for him to hack Gattuso in that part of the field. He simply needs to keep his composure better in that situation.
M, Michael Bradley, 6 -- Got the U.S. into the game with some crunching tackles, although he should have done better with a shot on goal after being released by Donovan.
M, Clint Dempsey, 5 -- Had some good moments, but just seems to lack jump in his legs. His impact was inconsistent even before the red card.
M, Benny Feilhaber, 5 -- The good and the bad wrapped up in one game. His pass to Altidore that set up the penalty was magic, but his giveaway that led to Rossi's goal is the kind of mistake that has dogged him at club level.
F, Jozy Altidore, 6 -- Seems to have taken a page out of Brian Ching's book with his ability to draw fouls, especially on the penalty. He needs to show more confidence in front of goal, however, as his decision to pass instead of shoot when put through by Donovan was baffling.
F, Charlie Davies, 4 -- The circumstances were tough, but the U.S. needed more from Davies, who should have done better from a Donovan corner kick in the 90th minute.
D, DaMarcus Beasley, 4 -- Got forward more often than Bornstein, but his crossing was sub-par.
M, Sacha Kljestan, 6 -- Wouldn't have minded seeing him come on earlier, as his late howitzer just missed the target. Gave the U.S. a late spark.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at email@example.com.
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