For the past 10 years, American soccer has gotten better due to many players getting the chance to play with good teams in respected European leagues.
In the United States men’s national team’s 1-0 victory against Italy—its first win against the Azzuris ever—it looked like all the time developing has finally shown true progress as a soccer nation.
The win was a team effort but in a lineup that featured 10 of the 11 starters playing in Europe, some names stood out: Michael Bradley (Chievo Verona), Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar), Maurice Edu (Rangers), Carlos Bocanegra (Rangers) and Tim Howard (Everton).
Some may say that they are the team’s best players and they should stand out, but they all put in notable performances against one of the world’s elite teams. How they played and how they handled the pressure of the game said a lot about how they have improved over the years.
Tim Howard is the team’s most consistent player and didn’t have to make any miraculous saves tonight. But as the United States started to lose its interest in attacking once it had the lead, Italy dominated possession and was a constant threat.
Howard and Bocanegra remained calm under pressure and time and time again turned away the Italian offense. Howard made some key saves and Bocanegra covered for mistakes from other defenders and kept another clean sheet—the 23rd of Howard’s international career.
Dempsey has been one of the hottest players in the English Premier League this season. Player of the Year for the club last year, Dempsey has scored 16 goals in 34 games in all competitions for the Cottagers this season. His confidence is soaring—a must for any goal scorer—and he isn’t afraid to let a shot fly.
His creativity and talent have always been there but his confidence and maturity were honed in England. He still celebrates in style and trash talks his opponents, but in the game against Italy, commentator Taylor Twellman commented on Dempsey’s newfound business-like approach to the game that he's noticed in recent interviews and how it shows that he is maturing as a player.
The central midfield tandem of Bradley and Edu was extremely efficient tonight. It’s been a challenging year for Bradley; his father was sacked as national team coach, he stopped receiving playing time with his club team—Borussia Monchengladbach—and even lost his starting spot in the midfield for the USMNT for the beginning of Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure.
A move to Chievo Verona, though, put him back on the pitch and right at the center of the action. He is the team’s main central midfielder and has played very well. Against Italy he was all over the field breaking up plays. He always seemed to be in the right place at the right time and his ball movement was clean and crisp.
Edu, who hasn’t fared well with the USMNT since the 2010 FIFA World Cup, has continued to plug away at Rangers. A valuable member of that club, the team is scrambling to keep him before his contract expires.
Against Italy he stepped in and played his best game for the team in the past year. He made good decisions both defensively and offensively and played a clean game. The fans watching the game didn’t hear his name much, but as a holding midfielder that’s a good thing, meaning he wasn’t out of position or making costly errors.
Klinsmann wants to make the team more possession-oriented. A key to holding onto the ball for longer and more efficient periods is play from the midfielders, specifically the central midfielders.
Bradley and Edu are defensive-first-minded players but they can play both ways and against Italy they showed they hold the keys to the team’s progress. Both displayed fine footwork and an ability to move the ball out of trouble as well as link the defense to the offense.
Altidore is also another player that will play an important role in the team’s new mentality. He didn’t score and he will likely be criticized for that. But the things he was able to do speak volumes of his improvement.
The 22-year-old is having an incredible season with his club team, scoring 13 goals in 34 games across all competitions. He is gaining confidence week-to-week, developing good work habits and he is also finally learning how to use his size to his advantage.
At 6'1'', Altidore is a big, strong forward. The best plays he makes are when he shields the ball from his opponents and turns his defender. He has an advantage over guys and should use it.
When he was younger, however, he would try to dribble and take guys on, usually trying to do too much and turning the ball over. Against Italy, though, he looked like a target forward.
He got into space, played with his back to the goal, collected the ball and because he was properly shielding it he was able to pass it off—like he did on the assist of Dempsey’s goal—or turn and free himself from the defense.
Being able to hold the ball, as noted before, will be critical and if the team continues to play with only one forward, Altidore will, at times, need to be able to collect the pass, shield and wait for help. He has been doing it more and more and the Italy game showed how much he has improved.
There is still so much for the team and these individuals to do to improve. In the second half, when protecting the lead, the team reverted to a more defensive-shell, something that they will need to un-learn.
But the first-ever victory over Italy, in Italy, against a top-tier country, in a pressure-packed environment and scoring against the run of play showed progress.
Progress was displayed not only by the team as whole but also by individuals. As more individuals like Altidore, Bradley and Edu take their games to top-level teams, the whole team will continue to make successful leaps in terms of ability.