Tonight, I am so proud of Team USA. In one of the most physical, bizzare, and intense matches I have ever seen, the USA ground out a 1-1 tie with Italy and kept their hopes of advancing to the second round of the World Cup alive. Italy is a three-time World Cup champion, home of one of the great football leagues in Europe, and their team simply oozes quality. In my last post, I called out the USA for playing without heart or passion and warned that, facing superior talent all over the pitch, we were looking at a probable dismantling at the hands of Italy. I never gave up hope, but realistically, what chance did the USA have against the Italians?
Thank God no one listened to me.
I'll eat some crow; I posted that we would lose 3-0 , that I hoped it wouldn't happen, but that I thought based on the formation, Italy's quality and the prior game's lack of passion, we'd get thrashed. Well, I was wrong. MMMMM.... CROW! Delicious!
I am so proud of this team. This performance looked like the USA I know and love, a team that won't quit and works hard for the win. The match is already legendary, with Eddie Johnson's 'War' analogy seeming like prescience in the aftermath of match which saw three red cards, and the Americans playing most of the second half with only 9 players against 10-man Italy. After the teams exchanged goals (Italy's Alberto Gilardino scoring against perhaps the worst off-sides trap in history and Cristian Zaccardo gifting the US an own-goal on perhaps the worst clearance in history), things picked up in a big way when, challenging for a 50-50 ball in midfield, Italy's Daniele De Rossi intentionally swung an elbow into the face of USA striker Brian McBride. The results of this grusome challenge were a straight red card for De Rossi and three stitches for McBride, who returned to the game in a matter of minutes.
Seeing Red: The Foul By De Rossi and Its Bloody Aftermath(AP Photos)
Two minutes later, and playing with a man advantage, the USA's Pablo Mastroeni is shown a straight red card for his terrible two-footed challenge on Italy's Andrea Pirlo. It may have been a tad harsh, but Pablo showed no sense making a tackle like this in his own attacking third of the field.
Studs Up: Mastroeni Earns An Early Shower(AP Photo)
Then, in the first minute of the second half, ten on ten, Eddie Pope draws a second yellow card and an automatic red for his ball-winning tackle from behind on Italy's Alberto Gilardino.
Pope Gets Screwed Again: A Second Bad Yellow Card Sees Off Eddie Pope(AP Photo)
The USA spent the entire second half hustling their asses off and keeping Italy out of the goal, and after DaMarcus Beasley put one past Buffon in Italy's net, I was over the moon, only to have the goal called back for an offside on Brian McBride, who clearly obstructed play in an offside position. With Italy putting the US under intense pressure for the final 30 minutes of the match, it was all I could to not faint when the final whistle blew. The US had done it; we had earned a draw with one of the greatest footballing nations in the world while playing in Europe with 9 men. I think the performance tonight was one for the ages; one of the greatest results for Team USA in our history.
Kudos to manager Bruce Arena for making the proper changes; I saw strikers challenging the ball all the way up the field, players closing the ball down and disrupting passes; the passion and energy for the game was back. I think we were absolutely gassed at the end of the match and held on with nothing more than pure determination. That is the USA I know and love; MY TEAM. With Ghana absolutely pounding the Czech Republic in the most lopsided 2-0 match in this World Cup, the US knows what we have to do to advance: Beat Ghana and hope that Italy beats the Czech Republic. If we win and Italy win, we are on to the next round, so I will be watching both games on Thursday at the same time in the hopes that USA and Italy, bitter rivals on the pitch tonight, can get it done and advance. There is all to play for.
Now, moving forward... This was by no means a perfect match and there are some things that we need to fix in a hurry, especially against a fast, physical Ghana team. Here are my keys to Thursday's huge match against a very dangerous Ghana...
1. Keller's distribution: He learned nothing from the first match. Booming balls up the pitch to no one as the team was barely holding on at the back? Waste time! Play a short ball that the defenders can build going forward, do something POSITIVE out of the back. I understand that we want the ball down the pitch, away from goal when we are a man down, but this tactic wasted about 3 seconds each time, before Buffon and the 2 center backs gathered the ball and pressured us again. If we could make a play in the midfield going forward, and we did all night, this would waste WAY more time than bombing it deep and letting them start over. We need better distribution from Keller going forward. 2. The Offside Trap: It was atrocious. Pope raising his arm on the first goal as his man headed it into the net, and numerous offsides calls that could have gone either way that, somehow, some way, went our way-- that is no way to build a defense. The team REALLY needs to organize the back four. Decide on your back four and work on this all week long. Ghana's goals today both came from nice plays in the box when defenders were caught out of position. Their first goal reminded me of Clint Mathis' great strike for the USA against South Korea in '02. Both of Ghana's goal scorers will be out for our match with yellow card suspensions, but that doesn't make the team any less dangerous, especially when we both need a win. This game will be won and lost by the play of our back four. 3. Lone Striker Syndrome: It must end. Put Landon Donovan behind McBride and Eddie Johnson, and let 'er rip. Get Claudio Reyna and John O'Brien to win balls all day, play Clint Dempsey on the right and play this match to win. Despite much better service today, McBride alone is far less effective than an agressive forward playing with him, especially one like Eddie Johnson with a LOT of pace. Eddie has been sitting on the bench for too long as we have struggled for goals; wind him up and let him go. Ghana is going to try and run us into the ground, and we better be ready to fly. Even against Italy, Ghana came to play and got unlucky. That said, their back four can be beaten. In this match, if we play a 4-4-2, we will have far more qulity up top than the Czech Republic did today. Time For The Grown Ass Man: Arena Must Unleash Eddie Johnson 4. Holding Up Play: This tactic, slowing down forward play and playing balls backward instead of attacking, clearly stifles this team. Even DaMarcus Beasley, our speed merchant on the pitch tonight, was caught holding up play quite a few times instead of running at people. That said, you can see how much better this was for us tonight when compared against the Czech Republic match. Go forward, with pace and touch, and attack. 5. Shooting the ball: We haven't shot the ball anywhere near enough. HUGE props to Mastroeni for having a go and almost hitting the top corner from way outside in the dying minutes of the first half tonight. That said, there was a play in the second half where Reyna could have sent Donovan through clean had he not taken a terrible shot wide of the post. We have to do better with our chances: we are 0 for the World Cup. It's time we finished... Get some goals! Great match today. I could barely watch the last 30 minutes... not sure my heart has recovered. Well done, USA. You made me a very, very proud supporter today. On to Thursday... No matter what, I am proud again of this team who played a terrible match on Monday and turned it all around and made history tonight. Go USA!