The U.S. Men's National Team came into the Confederations Cup with hopes that the tough competition would give them a barometer of how the team measures up.
And the initial impressions are not too good.
The U.S. lost to Italy 3-1 yesterday, and although the scoreline is a bit unfair to the Americans, the loss clearly demonstrates that the U.S. has a long way to go to be a player on the big international stage.
Give the boys credit. They did not have an early letdown, but came out to play hard. They competed. Michael Bradley got stuck in and caused problems for the Italian midfield. They started to put pressure on the defense of the Italians by running at them.
Then, the inevitable happened. As is customary in our games with Italy, we got another red card, this time by Ricardo Clark. Was it deserved? Most would say no, but it was a foolish challenge nonetheless.
That red card changed the complexion of the match and the U.S. played a man down for the rest of game, eventually succumbing to exhaustion and lack of concentration in the second half, where Italy came to life and punished the U.S. in quick succession.
Mistakes that compounded other mistakes. That has been the hallmark of this team of late.
Did we have opportunities? Sure did. Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore had clear shots on goal from inside the penalty area but did little more than roll the ball to keeper Gianluigi Buffon.
But as customary, they did not convert those chances. Neither did Charlie Davies with a clear header late that would have tied the match.
Good teams bury most of those chances.
Many fans are blaming the ref for some non-calls and for overreacting on the Clark challenge. Some are blaming Giuseppe Rossi, the Italian-American, who within the first minute of his arrival scored to level the match.
The calls or non-calls are the nature of international football. And Rossi? Well, he pretty much stopped being an American a long time ago.
His defection to play for Italy hurts for sure, but what hurts more is that the U.S. team shot itself in the foot (again) and clearly lacks the discipline and tactical awareness and skill required to compete fully at this level.
There is some merit in those claims, but let's stop scapegoating others and instead figure out what the U.S. team could have done to control this match.
1. Attack, attack, attack
Credit Michael Bradley with a good game, dispossessing the Italians and springing counterattacks that provided the U.S. with their best chances in the first half.
We need more of that as well as more creative, possession-focused players like Freddy Adu and Jose Francisco Torres to keep the ball and distribute to our attacking players so that our team is not one-dimensional and predictable to play against.
Putting opposing defenses on their heels causes them to give more space out of respect, so we need more build up play through the midfield and wings instead of hopeful long balls.
We can also win more set pieces/corner kicks this way, so I'm a firm believer in "the best defense is a good offense" philosophy (Even more telling is the corner kicks stat: Italians 10, USA 1).
2. Eliminate stupid mistakes
Ricardo Clark and Pablo Mastroeni should not be allowed within 100 yards of the team in games against big opponents. Either that or they be taught how to control themselves and not make foolish mistakes or commit dumb fouls.
It's those kind of mistakes that are costing the team and putting them into a hole. Team USA needs to be better disciplined overall.
3. Finish our chances
You are almost ceding a goal to your opponent when you don't finish good opportunities to score.
We need to do more with our chances, even the half chances. Put the ball on frame instead of hitting it way over the crossbar; it forces a save from the keeper and maybe he spills it and someone can follow up.
4. Get in front of shooters
The U.S. had this problem in the previous World Cup qualifiers and it happened again on the first two goals by Italy: they did not challenge the shooters.
Just because someone is shooting from distance does not mean let them run at you and give them space! Step in front of them and change the shot or force them to pass.
5. Consider a coaching change
I hate writing this part because I have been a fan of Bob Bradley for sometime and I feel that he has done an average to good job as head coach. But it's obvious that something has to change.
The problems and solutions above of discipline and tactics could possibly be remedied by a coach with more experience internationally. I will be the first to admit the U.S. is not blessed with tons of the quality and depth of other squads, but I believe we are a better team than we are showing.
We need to improve our tactics, our individual skill, our discipline, and our offensive minds in order to truly challenge and beat teams like Italy, Brazil or even Egypt. I believe if we do not do something drastic, we will lose all three of these games and also crash out of the World Cup next year, provided we qualify for that.
I'm so proud of the team for fighting and challenging good teams like Italy, but as they say, there are no moral victories in soccer. We need results, and the U.S. Soccer supporters are savvy enough now to expect more from this team.
If changes are not made soon, the team will be mired in continuing mediocrity in this World Cup cycle. Our players will continue to receive pats on the back but will be unwilling or unable to improve after losses such as these.
And that will be frustrating to watch, indeed.