GENOA, ITALY - FEBRUARY 29: Clint Dempsey of USA scores the first goal during the international friendly match between Italy and USA at Luigi Ferraris Stadium on February 29, 2012 in Genoa, Italy. (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
As friendlies go, this was a huge victory. The United States had never beaten Italy, and with the exception of the 2006 World Cup never came close. It seems we can ask Clint Dempsey to do everything. His 56th minute goal after a keen layoff by Jozy Altidore produced the only score in today's friendly and it was enough. As dirty as Alexi Lalas made it sound, this was a classic example of how the United States plays soccer, but I'll add with far more midfield presence than our "survive and counter" instinct of the previous eras.
In my preview, I talked about Jonathan Spector being that 23rd man for the roster, as if that was a bad thing. It is paramount to our success that we have players that have the ability to play multiple positions without hurting the team. The injury bug required Fabian Johnson to step in at left back and Spector as well after replacing him. While neither is a natural left back, today their play exceeded our expectations. While I don't want Johnson to be our permanent left back, one can see how the United States plays better with him on the field somewhere. With the midfield crowded, perhaps he stays there in the near future. Johnson's cross led to the lone goal, and his defense allowed Shea to be on the offensive in the first half. Spector was brought in and played more like a center back tucked inside of Kljestan who was lying deep. The only time Italy got by on the left after his sub-in was a through ball behind Kljestan and Spector blocked that attempt at a cross (or poor shot?).
The United States kept a fine line in the match frequently resulting in Giovinco and Matri being offside nine times. Some of that must be placed on the Italians as well, because it happened too many times. When the Italians got through in the first half, Tim Howard made the saves needed.
After the goal, Howard didn't have to make a hard save (He was credited with two). That didn't mean the Italians weren't pressuring, but the back four blocked everything. The only ball that made it through was deflected by Bradley. Outside a Bocanegra clearance at the near post, none of the attempts even seemed to threaten the goal. Spector came on and blocked four shots in his first ten minutes as the United States tightened in and ceded the wings more.
Like their defeat of Spain in 2009, if you try to attack the Americans aerially from the wings, it won't work. However, only once during the last third did Andrea Pirlo get time to look up and find a pass through. Dempsey did a good job of dropping underneath him so Italy couldn't pull back and reset. When the United States were caught on a break, Bradley filled in and took control. It was a textbook example of holding a one goal lead.
Klinsmann didn't experiment here, so I can't take credit for looking more prescient. In hindsight, I should have slotted Goodson in as a center back, because of the venue and opponent. The United States came out in a 4-4-2 defensively and 4-2-3-1 offensively. Bradley and Edu held more than advancing but were solid a both controlling play and stopping Italy. The goal, like Zusi's against Panama again came from a push up the wings and a cross in.
The United States has always played wider in midfield than others, but now they have three men in the center so they aren't conceding the middle of the field either. Dempsey dropped enough into Pirlo's space that the two took each other out of the game for large spaces. It still doesn't produce shots at the rate needed, but it sufficed to beat a solid opponent on the road. There are still many things to work on, but now the confidence is there to move past the losses in 2011. It's another long wait for the next match, but there will be plenty of entertainment in between and plenty of cheer after this win.