The Italian Job: U.S. Sees Golden Opportunity Unfairly Vanish

A shell of my former selfCorrespondent IJune 15, 2009

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 15:  Giuseppe Rossi (3rd L) and Andrea Pirlo (3rd R) of Italy celebrate during the FIFA Confederations Cup match between USA and Italy at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium on June 15, 2009 in Pretoria, South Africa.  (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)

It's always easy to put the blame on someone else.

Everyone has done it a few times in their lives, whether it be a friend during the middle school years, an annoyance of a little brother, or an irksome co-worker.

It surely is the easiest way out, but sometimes it's a necessary. As the U.S. national squad faced heat from their last few matches before heading to the FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa, this tournament was supposed to exorcise the demons that have left the Americans in recent, early-match disarray.

Bob Bradley's seat was and now certainly is iron-hot after another big loss on a big stage against a bigger than big team. A 3-1 result against the defending World Cup champions may seem like an archetypal ass-whipping that the Americans have had to endure in the past.

Far, far from it, actually.

With yet another new-look lineup matching up against the Azzurri, the only real question was which team would show up? The bloodied cast of outlaws that forced the world champs into its only blemish now three years ago, or the slew of impostors who took center stage in San Jose, Costa Rica a couple weeks ago.

The U.S. played soccer, or football, whichever you prefer to label, and played it at a high level against one of the best teams in the world. The midfield made the Italians itch with the impressive play of Michael Bradley, Ricardo Clark, and Benny Feilhaber pressing up.

Even the much-ridiculed poster boy, Landon Donovan, played, without a shadow of a doubt, his best match in recent memory. For one night, on the world's biggest stage, Donovan played up to his true potential of donning the No. 10 shirt and was a constant pest.

Enter the antagonist of the evening: Pablo Pozo, the 36-year-old Chilean center official who prematurely chucked any chance the Americans had for a result right out the passenger-side window with the cockamamie and faulty ejection of Clark in the 33rd minute.

Clark's reckless and ill-advised challenge on Gennaro Gattuso was without a doubt illogical, but the body language of the center midfielder of the Houston Dynamo was not merely trying to halt Gattuso from a goal-scoring opportunity, nor was it purely a harmful reaction. Clark's vision betrayed him and he made a poor play on what he thought was the ball and winched the Gattuso to the ground.

A harsh foul, dangerous play, reckless foul, of course—a yellow and a stern warning. A straight red for a player who had yet to receive merely a warning from Pozo was a cheat. A cheat to an highly-underdogged side, who had, for some reason, strung together their best performance since devouring Mexico on February 11.

After Clark was dismissed, the U.S. side kept up its play. Donovan continued to use his speed and agility around the taller Italian defenders and fellow forward, Jozy Altidore couldn't be stopped, whose size bothered the likes of Nicola Legrottaglie and Giorgio Chiellini. His drawing of the penalty kick showcased his up-and-coming nature as a forward.

As Donovan buried the 41st minute penalty and the Americans escaped into the locker room for the half, one would figure it would only do better for a 10-man squad leading a team like Italy.

Instead, Marcelo Lippi and the Azzurri waited. Perched in the branches, awaiting their killer strike(s) that would pit the hopes and hearts of the Americans six feet under ground.

And that's how the fat lady ended up belting it.

American-born Giuseppe Rossi, the 22-year-old kid from Teaneck, N.J., surely stabbed the U.S. in the back, front, and everywhere imaginable after coming on in the 54th minute, dispossessing Feilhaber and launching a masterful 30-yard left-footed strike to knot things up for the Italians.

Here's the type of heartbreak the U.S. Soccer Federation must deal with. Bruce Arena must be held accountable for his crimes against U.S. Soccer.

There's no way in anyone's right mind you allow a native talent such as Rossi walk on to the other side. Arena sent an invitation, Rossi probably figured he deserved much more than a letter in the mail to his Teaneck residence—he was certainly right.

After Rossi pitted his team back into the mix, the tired, wore-down Stars & Stripes stood no chance. Of course, it was the usual suspect, Daniele De Rossi who essentially stuck the nail in the coffin with a wicked 35-yard drive that should've been nicked clear by Oguchi Onyewu, which instead, found the back of the net and the Italians suddenly awake 2-1 in the 71st minute.

Therein lies the difference between this American squad and the Azzurri, the oldest team at this Confederations Cup. A minuscule attacking sub can come in and unleash and unimaginable shot or a tough-guy midfielder can create the appropriate space, thanks to the ejection of Clark, and rip a chance.

Soccer is a game of chance—often a game of luck.

But Pozo didn't see it that way in the 80th minute when Legrottaglie literally flew over Donovan inside the box and prevented him from making the play on the ball.

Apparently, Americans have a quota of one penalty kick per match. If Pozo is going to send off Clark with a straight red, give Altidore his deserved penalty kick and make what was an exciting and interesting matchup for the Americans into a boring, sit-back, bend-not-break type of game, the center official has to make the correct and appropriate call.

But as stoic and boring as Bradley is, I wanted nothing more than to see Denzel Washington, a la "Remember the Titans," giving the ref a piece of his mind and noticeably pointing out the obvious disparity in calls.

A red card for a penalty is not a fair trade because that's not how the sport is supposed to be played, but, then again, how terrified would FIFA be if this still apparently extremely-average American squad bested the defending champions at full strength?

It's easy to call foul, or to even flop, but Pozo did both in this game as a center official.

Yes, the truth is the Italians are Lamborghini's and Ferrari's and the Americans are still the typical Dodge Stratus or Ford Fusion. Anytime you can bring Luca Toni off as your fourth forward, it says something for the level of talent your team sports, but nevertheless, sometimes it's fair to keep the game even and under-wraps.

Shades of 2006 oozed after Clark shockingly saw red early in the first and this time, De Rossi wasn't there to whip an elbow into the eye socket of a Brian McBride.

As impressive as the Americans were, Bradley was still out-managed by the similarly-tolerant Lippi and the sub of a Charlie Davies, who plays somewhere in Timbuktu, Sweden over the talents of Freddy Adu still continues to baffle minds.

Feilhaber did deliver a nice pass to Altidore that did set up the penalty in the first, but aside from that, the criminal give away to Rossi sparked the Italian side full of confidence and as soon as the Azzurri got fire, started to dance along sidelines, finish volleys, and 30-yard strikes, the undermanned Americans, exhausted in dealing with the same smoke-and-mirrors of 2006, were defeated, by both a superior Italian squad and a inconsistent and mediocre ref.

The lasting question now persists, what else can the U.S. do to get a result on such a colossal stage and where do they go from here?

Straight up against the most-exciting and jubilant squad on the globe three days from now.

As a good friend of mine put it today after the 3-1 result, "the stars will have to align for the U.S. to win."

Arena put the kibosh on that three years ago, and all of Sam's Army painfully endured what might have been had they figured out the first of many stars.


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