PRETORIA, South Africa -- After having fought a man down for most of the second half in that epic 2006 World Cup match, no one could have blamed the U.S. national team for thinking this was its chance to play world champion Italy on level terms.
But Pablo Pozo had other ideas.
The Chilean referee showed a straight red card to American midfielder Ricardo Clark in the 33rd minute of Monday night's game, leaving the Americans a man short once again, and unbalancing a midfield carefully designed by coach Bob Bradley to interrupt the Italians' playmaking in the middle of the park.
"Eleven guys from each team were prepared and ready to play the game and the guy in the middle with whistle was not," American captain Landon Donovan said of Pozo's performance. "That was unfortunate because we wanted to put on a good show."
Clark dove in clumsily on Italian midfielder Gennaro Gattuso just across the midfield stripe, but the foul was clearly unintentional, and the Houston Dynamo man was shocked to see red. The victim was somewhat surprised to see the American expelled as well.
"It's the interpretation of the referee, no?" said Gattuso. "It's a dangerous play, maybe yes, maybe no -- 75 percent."
Clark was more decisive in his assessment of the severity of his foul.
"I think it was a bad call," he said. "It was definitely a foul, possibly a yellow, definitely not a red. It affects the whole game. It changes the game. It changed the team."
The Americans had been asserting themselves in the midfield before Clark's expulsion, but the tide quickly turned as the U.S. struggled to adjust without its midfield enforcer. Bradley was compelled to make a series of tactical changes to a formation that had been working well to that point.
"We rearranged ourselves tactically," Bradley explained after the match. "Benny Feilhaber moved inside and Landon came a bit more in from the right, and I think for a good period we did a fine job in terms of still keeping things compact and at certain moments finding a way to make some passes."
The U.S. managed to go up a goal when Josmer Altidore tumbled over in the box and Pozo signaled a penalty -- a bit dubious in its own right -- in the 41st minute, with Donovan dispatching the penalty kick.
But as the second period advanced, the short-handed Americans ultimately wore down. The Italians began to find more possession, and tied the game in the 58th minute, when substitute Giuseppe Rossi dispossessed Feilhaber just inside the American half, and raced down the field unchallenged, before unleashing a shot from 30 yards that beat goalkeeper Tim Howard and grazed the inside of the post before finding the back of the net.
Fourteen minutes later, Daniele De Rossi found another opening at the top of the American box, and angled home a shot past a diving Howard to give the Italians the lead.
"I think when you go down to 10 men against a team like Italy, and you work and you work and you work, a team as world class as that is eventually going to find the spaces," said defender Jay DeMerit, who filled in for injured captain Carlos Bocanegra. "Against a team like that it's really hard to play with 11 men, let alone 10. When the midfield opens up like that, guys are always going to get free, and it makes it really hard to make the right decisions."
Much as they did against Italy three years ago in the World Cup, the Americans had put up a valiant fight before Rossi's goal, and the Italians had seen few clear chances. But the lightning-quick strike of Rossi, who had entered the match just a minute before, seemed to disorient the Americans.
Even as those gaping holes began to open up for the Italians in the midfield, Bradley had few options to replace the missing Clark. With Maurice Edu out injured and Pablo Mastroeni left at home, the coach opted to leave his central pairing of Feilhaber and Michael Bradley unchanged.
Bob Bradley will now need to quickly find a way to close the hole in midfield before facing Brazil on Thursday. Clark, perhaps the only pure defensive midfielder on the Americans' roster, will not be available after his red card.
While the Americans may miss seeing Clark in the center of the park against the Brazilians, one man they will be glad not to see out there is Pablo Pozo.
Brent Latham covers U.S. Soccer for ESPNsoccernet. Based in Dakar, Senegal, he also covers West Africa for Voice of America radio and can be reached at email@example.com.
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