Tuesday, February 28, 2012

That's On Point - USMNT vs. Italy Preview

Kaiserslautern ... not just a jersey Darrell Sheets found in a storage locker.
It's about time, right? We've got ourselves a U.S. National Team writer. Mike Cardillo, who we've been reading for YEARS on his site, "That's On Point", for US preview/reviews and English Premier League musings will be providing some coverage of the Nats as they begin their 2014 World Cup Qualifying campaign.

Mike's has been writing about the National Team for as long as we've been reading about American soccer on the Internet! He's got a quick wit and pop cultural references up the ying-yang. 

So welcome Mike to the site and your opinions on the USMNT fly! 


By Mike Cardillo / Senior National (Team) Correspondent 

"Ich habe Durchfall." -- Lonley Planet's Guide to Germany

Sometimes you really have to hand it to Germany, no, not for their efficient railway system, luxury sports cars and 7-foot sweet-shooting power forwards named Dirk. Perhaps the highest compliment you can pay any Teuton is their undying commitment to efficient organization, which might be a stereotype yes, albeit a nice stereotype to have heaped on you as an ethnic group.

This organization trickles down Germany's sports where its fan clubs seemed better run than most American municipalities. German soccer fan groups in recent years have successfully lobbied the Deutscher Fußball-Bund for keeping ticket prices -- including standing sections -- affordable and for keeping an on-air highlights package of Bundesliga matches on free television. Sadly in America, the land of supposed freedom and democracy, our sports fans act no better than braying sheep as owners, leagues and sponsors continue to suck more and more money out of pockets.

In turn, the grounds across Germany probably host the best of that fabled "atmosphere" of anywhere in Europe. You'd think, by their cold, stern outward apperance Germans would be indifferent to such trivial matters as grown men kicking around a ball, but apathy and fußball don't exist.

Something Ze Germans love with all their hearts, too, beside beers and sausage are megaphones. Don't ask me why but German fans must single-handily keep the megaphone business in hard because you're not going to a match without a couple fan "captains" leading the cheers with them.

And yes, you'll note in the video below that is indeed the reviled former German captain -- and future ESPN Euro analyst -- Michael Ballack joining in with the Bayer Leverkausen fans.

Now at this point you're probably thinking what the heck all this has to do with Wednesday's United States/Italy friendly in Genoa (2:30, ESPN2). Rest assured, this isn't going to be a swipe at U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsman's subtle attempt to mold the USMNT into Die Mannschaft 2.0.

Instead, let's rewind almost six years to a simpler time in our lives, a time before Justin Beiber and Katy Perry had even used ProActiv, let alone star in those unending strings of commercials for the face product which used to air nonstop on Fox Soccer Channel. Let's go back to a trip on Die Bahn from the idyllic college town of Heidleburg, Germany to some far flung outpost known as Kaiserslautern, which was home to both a nearby United States army base and the Fritz-Walter Stadion -- the site of a 2006 World Cup encounter between (then) three-time champion Cup Italy and two-time mullet World Cup champion, the United States.

It was on this train I personally witnessed the German's love for megaphones great and small with the entire ride comprised of a would-be German comedian trying to play AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" via the sound tones on said megaphone's keypad. Well, that was until a real comedian -- me -- took the reigns and gave those Germans, along with a random Japanese journalist, the time of their lives by reciting the medical terms from the Lonely Planet guide.

Suffice to say, men talking into a megaphone about their menstrual patterns must be a taboo subject in Germany because my "set" killed. Germans react to comedy by silent, stern faces instead of laughs, right?

And that set a tone for a wonderful, memorable day in Germany, which served as a personal turning point in my experience with the USMNT. Call it a day when everything seemed possible yet finished, in Don Henley terms, with the end of the innocence.

Due to all the nearby U.S. servicemen and women, plus their families nearby, Kaiserslatuern was overrun with red-blooded Yanks. Stars and Stripes facial tattoos outnumbered Azzurri in Roman Legion helmets 10-to-1. This wasn't like the U.S.'s first game at the 2006 World Cup, where the menacing, grim, dare I say barbaric Czech Republic fans ran roughshod over Gelsenkirchen in advance of a dispiriting 3-0 defeat at the Arena Auf Schalke.

It was the Czechs who provided the greatest lift of all, as they lost to Ghana 2-0 earlier in the day meaning if the U.S. notched a result against Italy it would control its own fate in the final group game against the Black Stars (let's not talk about this game, okay?). This revelation kicked what was already a day of joy, merriment and libation into another gear, which turned out to be a tough decision later on as it turned out the Fritz-Walter Stadion was situated atop a small mountain that was only accessible by foot.

Fortunately that handy, dandy Lonely Planet book provided nonstop entertainment -- especially when blurting out half-drunkenly to other random (bombed) people that you have your own syringe or you don't want a blood transfusion. (Ich habe meine eigene Spritze!)

Although the ascent to the stadium would have made Sir Edmund Hilary blush, it was well worth it, as the Americans were, as the Europeans say, in full voice. Since the stadium was enclosed by steel walls, it made for a cauldron of sound unlike anything I've ever been a part of, aside, from this one NBA game I went to when they played "Carwash" midway through the second quarter.

By the time the National Anthem was played, the crowd was whipped well into a frenzy. It's important to note, despite the presence of heavy scarves in near 90-degree weather, there wasn't an influx of costume-wearing, look-at-me U.S. fans. The pomp all happened oraganically, perhaps aided by the easy access to cheap German suds.

The ensuing 90 minutes were the best -- and worst -- of the U.S. rolled into one.

At its best, it felt like all those Nike-sponsored, "Dont' Tread on Me" ad campaigns might actually be more than something cooked up in Beaverton, Ore. At its worst, it felt like no matter what the U.S. did, unless it embraced the dark side of the game it would never get to the next level. For all the strides since a mainly amateur team played Italy at the 1990 World Cup, the gap had closed ... but not all that much. Wednesday's game in Genoa gives the U.S. another barometer to judge themselves against the longtime European standard-bearer, now with a coach won lifted the World Cup on Italian soil 22 years ago.

It helped, too, that the Italians that day in 2006 were an easy enemy with Rino Gattuso, Fabio Canavarro, et al, lining the phone booths of Kaiserslautern wearing nothing more than their briefs in a Dolce and Gabbana ad. The stereotype, too, of Italians doing everything short of killing their mothers on the field to win never felt more accurate. Seemingly everything Americans hated about soccer -- the flopping, the prancing, the guys with girls names -- it was all there in the form of the nefarious Azzurri and their meticulously groomed haircuts.

Granted, none of this mattered when Alberto Gilardino's header from a beautifully delivered Andrea Pirlo free kick beat the U.S. defense barely 20 minutes into the match. The Italians, lo and behold, as detestable as they might be, were also quite good at soccer.

Somehow, though, that U.S. never-say-die attitude pulled the U.S. level through a Christian Zaccardo own goal. (Only goal in open play scored against Italy during its run to winning the tournament.)

Then things basically, in the words of the kids, "jumped off." Danielle de Rossi's elbow split open Brian McBride's face like a ripe peach turning the men in blue shirts into Satan incarnate. Fortunately the American sports fan, as aforementioned is a docile sort, because it felt like a riot might ensue when first Pablo Mastreoni and later Eddie Pope were sent off for the U.S. (In retrospect, yeah, rash tackles leading to cards is a U.S. trademark, however that night it felt like the team was being jobbed by the Sepp Blatter brigade.)

Still, down a man for almost a half, Bruce Arena's boys hung in -- appeared to have a winner through DaMarcus Beasley waved off via offside -- and nicked a point off the eventual tournament champions. Yet in the long run, the blood of McBride paled in comparison to the grift and graft of the Old World.

That night however, despite, on the descent from the stadium play-acting like the flopping Italians and hurling out insults at Silvio Burlesconi -- and Gabibbo -- it still felt like the U.S. had done something tangible that night, even if that tangible result was, in fact, a tie thanks to an own-goal. Whatever, the U.S. had a chance to prove itself -- on European soil, no less. 

Sure, the U.S. has had success in the ensuing five and a half years. The Gold Cup win over Mexico in 2007. The stunning win over Spain at the Confederations Cups, as examples, but some of the spark from Kaiserslatuern seems to have faded. 

The naivety, however, that the U.S. might simply be able to win a World Cup going about things in their own special, unique American-way seems to have been extinguished. The removal of Bob Bradley for Klinsmann seems have only to have confirmed that. If the U.S. is going to win, it'll be playing their game -- not vice versa.

However the next few World Cup cycles pan out, we'll always have that shining moment of Kaiserslautern.


* So much for the "first game Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey playing together under Klinsmann" narrative, eh? Sounds like Donovan is very sick.

* Eric Wynalda has been a bit of a blowhard, lately, trying to position himself as a truth-teller outside the accepted, tacit U.S. Soccer media. While that act can be grating, his constant reminders on Fox Soccer for Dempsey to play closer to goal in a U.S. shirt is one of his better, if not best points. Dempsey playing closer to goal is important since, we've seen repeatedly, Jozy Altidore isn't suited to play alone up top without a running partner. Long-term Klinsmann has grand designs on a playing style and system for the U.S. You wouldn't think that includes a traditional two-forward system, but at some point you have to start winning games, too. For the immedaite future, Dempsey playing a more traditional attack role, even as a withdrawn striker is the U.S.'s best option.

* Jonathan Spector has never gotten a ton of love from me in this space, but he deserves a chance to claim a place in the U.S. defense -- or even midfield. After playing a bit role and suffering relegation with West Ham last year, the former Manchester United youth player swallowed his pride and went to Birmingham City -- also relegated. At Brum he's been a regular for Chris Hughton's side, which is within striking distance of promotion playing both as a defensive midfielder and at right back.

* Maybe it's me, but it seems like there are, what, about 50 potential guys in the U.S. pool to play defense all offering roughly the same level of play?

* Figure two guys who'd want to play in this match and play well are Carlos Bocanegra and Maurice Edu, considering the financial meltdown engulfing Rangers at the moment. 

* Damn you Cesare Prandelli, damn you to hell for leaving Mario Balotelli out of the Italian squad. Let's just laugh at this picture instead.

She ordered a .... fish filet?

* Not that it's an area of strength for the U.S, but if it were ever to generate some play in the wide areas of the field it's here, since Italian soccer seems averse to developing wingers of any sort. The fact, at 32, Andrea Pirlo remains the creative force for both Juventus and the Azzurri says a lot. Figure on Italy starting four natural central midfield types.

* Italian forward Giampoalo Pazzini and Alessandro Matri aren't speed merchants or all together that dynamic, yet they're crafty and have the knack for creating their own space in the box. The usual physicality that the U.S. defense displays -- albeit without the injured Oguchi Onyewu -- will be tested by the (term make me look smart) "tactical nous" of the Italians. That said, the most anticipated player for Italy is 20-year-old Roma striker Fabio Borini, who naturally isn't anticipated to start.

* Shame Freddy Adu wasn't in the mix for this one since Sebastian Giovinco is in the team for Italy. It's not every day Adu can line up on the field an toward over an opponent. Giovinco is generously listed at 5-foot-4.

* Fortunately Giuseppe Rossi -- scorer of two goals in Italy's 3-1 win in the 2009 Confederations Cup against the U.S. -- is out injured for this match. Beyond tired of that narrative.

* In keeping with the German nomenclature, perhaps we'd best start labeling it the 1.USMNT.

* With Jermaine Jones pulling out of the team due to injury, I'll be planning on giving myself a yellow card sometime around the 27th minute.

* Part of me, the devious part, hopes Michael Bradley starts the game on the bench to start a massive conspiracy theory/meltdown by U.S. fans on Twitter, considering Bradley is the only American playing in Italy.

* Nothing personal, although his admitted love of the Black Eyed Peas might taint this, but ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman is a little too much of a "bro" for my tastes behind the mic. Then again, Ian Darke could make a potted plant wearing an Affliction t-shirt seem witty and insight sitting next to him.

* Next scheduled match for the U.S. isn't until a May friendly with Scotland in, of all places, Jacksonville, Fla. Guess the USSF wanted a place that's already used to dealing with small, indifferent crowds via the Jaguars. Then again, haggis is huge in northern Florida. Huge.

* Apropos of nothing, Paulie Walnuts in Italy is never not funny. The entire three-minute montage has been deleted by the YouTube cops, so this clip will have to suffice.

Lineup Guess:

Midfield diamond, perhaps?

GK -- Howard

DEF -- Cherundolo -- Bocanegra -- Cameron -- F. Johnson

MID -- D. Williams -- Bradley -- Edu -- Kljestan

FOR -- Dempsey, Altidore

Closing Thought:

A lot of how you view this match probably boils down to your impression of Italy. The Azzurri, post their World Cup 2010 flame out in the group stages, have lost some luster. That said, with the Serie A success in the Champions League this year, plus the Italian's recent upturn in the last year, which includes a friendly draw with Germany and win over Spain. Is Italy good enough to beat either of those two in the Euro, probably not, but the Azzurri are still among the elite in the world.

Still, with the cagey way Italy is prone to play, this is a game the U.S. should be thinking is winnable if not for the maddening, frequent mental mistakes by made by the team. ...

Prediction: Ita;y 1, U.S. 1

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  1. "small crowds via the Jaguars" Our crowds aren't small and we don't black out games. Get your facts strait you fucking idiot.

  2. Anon- I'm sure Mike was just making a joke and so please refrain from such language when commenting. Also the article says nothing about "blacking out" games. You're welcome to take issue with the joke but certainly it can be done in a more mature way.

  3. fact. jaguars 25 out of 32 in attendance 2011.

  4. is that the previous of a soccer game, or the presidential elections??? haha it looks like yersterday to me, white, blue and red everywhere


"Anyone who tells me soccer is boring, I'm going to punch them in the face."
- Former Dallas Burn (aka FC Dallas) coach Dave Dir

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