Confederations Cup 2009: Why The US has a Realistic Shot versus Italy
As discussed yesterday on this site with our retrospective of the 1999 Confederations Cup run by the United States it’s possible even realistic for a properly motivated American team to beat European sides outside of Europe. Keep in mind a European country has never once one a FIFA competition outside Europe..(Denmark’s 1995 Confederations Cup win was before the event was FIFA sanctioned and promoted)
Playing at altitude and on small pitches makes European sides especially vulnerable. This US team isn’t as good as the team we took to Mexico in 1999 and has serious questions on the back line but if they fight they have a good shot against Italy. The Italians have traditionally made more work out of playing the Americans than any other powerful side in the world.
Few who read this website remember the matchup between the US and Italy in 1984. The US held the mighty world champions to a scoreless draw at a friendly in front of a pro Azzuri crowd at the Meadowlands. That day this ten year old boy was convinced that the US would finally qualify for a World Cup in 1986, after a thirty six year absence from the world’s largest sporting event.
It was not to be. The US only needing a draw to advance to the final group of qualifying lost to Costa Rica in Torrance and World Cup dreams had to wait four more years.
On paper the US squad seeking qualification in 1990 was weaker than the team that had fallen short for the 1986 World Cup. But under Coach Bob Gansler, the US played a disciplined system tight at the back and very cautious going forward. Shockingly, the US qualified for its first World Cup in 40 years.
After giving up five goals against Czechoslovakia in the first game the US entered Roma’s Olympic Stadium with pundits across the globe, predicting a 7-0 score line or worse. I was in the UK for this game and was so embarrassed by the first match of the tournament I honestly tried to avoid watching this game.
But my British based relatives forced the issue and much to everyone’s surprise the American team played the game of their lives losing only 1-0 to the host nation and having two very good chances to draw late courtesy of Bruce Murray and Peter Vermes.
Everyone reading this site recalls the US draw with Italy in World Cup 2006. In that match the eventual World Champions wilted under the summer German heat, the pro American club and the nergy level a nine man US team brought. The US forced to play with three at the back late got heroic efforts from the likes of Jimmy Conrad (hint to Bob Bradley, he’s still active) and perhaps the greatest American field player ever Landon Donovan in the improbable draw.
Let’s get right down to it: the Italians are the reigning world champions, but they aren’t Brazil who can overwhelm you with talent and flair. As we discussed yesterday Bruce Arena had three signature victories over world powers in his first nine months on the job. Two and a half years on the job and Bradley’s best result against a world power was a 0-0 draw vs Argentina where Tim Howard finished with double digit saves.
This is Bradley’s chance to record that signature win Steve Sampson got as an interim coach over Argentina in the Copa America and which Arena got in bunches early. I expect the Americans to be properly motivated to face a team whose record outside of Europe is questionable and whose play on narrow pitches is poor. (It’s no wonder why Serie A sides consistently struggle with the congestion of the short and narrow English pitches in European competition)
Yesterday Zaki was ruled out of the tournament for Egypt. This also is a massive break for the US, and suddenly advancement to the second round looks attainable if still somewhat unrealistic.
Brazil under Dunga have been transformed into a tactically savvy side that won’t lose or draw a team like the US which offers little in the way of attacking quality. I often times get into debates with American soccer fans insular in their world view who say “we always beat Mexico so we should be ranked higher.” Until last year the US NEVER should have been ranked higher than Mexico despite consistently beating the Mexicans at home.
Why? Did you know Mexico has beaten Brazil six times in competitive matches since 1999? Competitive matches do not include friendlies. Mexico has beaten Brazil in two Confederations Cups, two Copa America’s and two Gold Cups. The US on the other hand looks tremendously outclassed whenever they face Brazil in serious non friendly match. Expect that to continue on Thursday.
So the Italy game looms large because history has taught us that:
a) European team do badly outside of Europe and
b) the US generally plays Italy tough even when undermanned.
c) Italian club sides and the national team struggle on smaller pitches
That adds up to a minimum expectation of a draw for team USA.