By David Kilpatrick, DKilpatrick [AT] mercy [DOT] edu
“There are no friendlies in football” is a well-worn cliché of the game, one that supporters of the sport in the United States are resorting to in defense of their enthusiasm for the men’s national team’s 0-1 victory over Italy in Genoa this week. As any Yank who has ever played overseas knows well, each match – whether pickup or pro – is a battle for respectability.
To be sure, there have been more shocking and significant results in the history of American soccer, from the win over England by the same scoreline in Belo Horizonte at the 1950 World Cup, to the 2-0 win over the defending European and eventual World Champion Spanish side in the semifinal of the 2009 Confederations Cup in Johannesburg. But this was the first time in eleven efforts that the Americans were able to defeat the Azzurri. The 1-1 draw between the sides in the group stages of the 2006 World Cup Finals, the US playing much of the match with ten men, may well have been a greater accomplishment, as they were the only side to play but not lose to the eventual champions of that tournament. While no title was at stake this week, the result would be less impressive if earned on neutral soil; one cannot overstate the significance of Italy suffering their first defeat in Genoa since 1924.
The Yanks pulled of their Italian job by beating the home side at their own game, showing a steely determination in defense with an exemplary demonstration of catenaccio in the heartland of the tactic, pulling the home side offside nine times. Some have cynically cited this as a compromise in the tactical and technical revolution that Jürgen Klinsmann has promised since taking over from Bob Bradley. But that would be to dismiss the composure and technical ability shown by the relatively young squad fielded by the footballing visionary.
Clint Dempsey’s clinical finish in the 55th minute came from a wonderful layoff from Jozy Altidore. The goal scorer continues the fine form he’s shown at club level with Fulham while Altidore is enjoying his finest season on the continent with AZ Alkmaar (Eredivisie) since he left New York for Villareal in 2008. But the duo weren’t the only ones to standout, as both Carlos Bocanegra and Maurice Edu were able to escape the crisis at Rangers for a few days while Michael Bradley, the son of Klinsmann’s predecessor now at ChievoVerona, showed great poise at holding midfield. And Tim Howard showed once again why he’s so crucial in goal for Everton, making seven saves against the Italians. It was tempting to forget that the American golden boy Landon Donovan — fresh form a successful loan spell at Everton — missed the game due to bronchitis. The Yanks are young but experienced, especially in terms of European play.
Gianluigi Buffon made just one save for the Italians but this wasn’t a case of one lucky counter-attack by scrappy underdog upstarts. It was a demonstration of poise and tactical nous, an awareness of what it would take to beat the four-time world champions at their own game on their own soil.
But it’s not just their game anymore, and that’s the real meaning behind the day. Klinsmann’s squad would have had greater depth had the U23s not had to face Mexico in a “friendly” warmup to Olympic qualification later in the evening at the home of FC Dallas in Frisco, Texas. (New York’s Juan Agudelo headed home the opening, winning goal in the 35th minute, then a minute later a long-distance strike from Freddy Adu was slightly deflected by Mix Diskerud to beat their arch-rivals from south of the border convincingly, 2-0.)
Before either of the US men’s teams played, the women’s team reminded the world of their dominance, defeating Denmark 5-0 in Lagos, Portugal, to win their opening game of the Algarve Cup. It is perhaps indicative of a paradigm shift in American soccer that the women’s efforts were for once overshadowed by the men’s.
Three wins from three games on the day, American soccer fans were left wishing every day could be Leap Day, each win a small step towards greater respectability among the domestic sporting audience as well as the global soccer community. Whether or not it will it prove a watershed moment in the transformation of US soccer Klinsmann hopes to accomplish remains to be seen, but it was hard for supporters not to feel at the end of February 29, 2012, that those small steps add up to one giant leap towards a brighter future.