PRETORIA, South Africa -- Bob Bradley could have been forgiven for trying to Americanize something, anything about Giuseppe Rossi on Monday. Even his name.
"It certainly would have been our hope that Jesse would have ... that Giuseppe would have played for the United States," Bradley said after Rossi scored two backbreaking goals to lead Italy to a 3-1 comeback victory over the U.S.. "But he made his decision, and he's a talented young player, and it was an exciting day for him and a disappointing day for us."
That's an understatement, even for the understated Bradley. Rossi is the one that got away from U.S. soccer. Born in New Jersey of Italian immigrants, the 22-year-old moved to his parents' mother country shortly before his 13th birthday in 2000 to join Parma's training program.
"I'm gonna kill him," said U.S. striker Jozy Altidore, a teammate and friend of Rossi's on the Spanish club Villarreal. He was joking. Mostly.
"When he scored the [first] goal," said veteran Italian defender Gennaro Gattuso, whose squad trailed 12 minutes into the second half, "it changed the game."
Even Rossi himself, while trying to say the right things, that the three points in the Cup's Group B was the important thing, that scoring two goals against any good team is satisfying, finally broke down and admitted this, his first contest against the U.S., was special. "When you play against a team that's the country where you were born," Rossi said, "it's always a great emotion before coming in."
Rossi came in like his hair was on fire. He sprinted onto the pitch in the 57th minute for Gattuso, and within 60 seconds stole the ball from Benny Feilhaber at midfield, raced forward and without breaking stride ripped a left-footed, 30-yard laser past Tim Howard to tie the match at 1.
He sealed the victory in extra time, neatly delivering Andrea Pirlo's perfect pass off his right foot for the final score. All the while, he showed off a dynamic style and versatility, carrying the ball and running off it, and generally energizing his side.
While the highlights will resonate around Italy, which seems to have found its next big star to succeed the aging lions of its 2006 World Cup squad, the replays will only salt the wounds of American fans who've wished dearly that Rossi would have stayed home.
Rossi's father coached the game in New Jersey, as Bradley pointed out on Monday. But staying in the U.S. was never in the young Rossi's plans.
Growing up, he played youth soccer against U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley, the U.S. coach's son, but his eyes were always on Italy. He moved at 13 to train at Parma's academy, and devoted himself to learning the world game the Italian way.
As he trained and played junior matches for Italy through his teens, the U.S. tried to recruit Rossi to play as an American. But when Rossi declined, then-U.S. coach Bruce Arena spoke of him dismissively. Rossi has never claimed he wanted revenge, but now he doesn't have to.
His performance last night stung U.S. fans who had daydreamed for years of a scorer like Rossi, a swift, 5-foot-8 spark plug with a wicked shot and a nose for the goal. Somebody who could affect an international match the first time he put his foot on the ball.
"He came out and made two touches and hit a bomb," Altidore said. "That opened the floodgates for them."
His goal woke up the Italian squad, which looked old and disinterested for much of the match, despite trailing 1-0, and despite playing with a man advantage after Ricardo Clark's disputed red card in the 33rd minute.
When Rossi arrived, the Italians attacked mercilessly. Rossi spoke admirably of the U.S. team, and he knows many players well.
"They played their heart out, just like we did," he said. And yes, he may have been a bit melancholy as he waited on the sidelines to replace Gattuso. But he didn't dwell on it, and he immediately set about destroying America's hopes, Italian style.
"When you're on the field," Rossi said, "you have no friends."
Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Mag.
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