U.S. win over Italy will build confidence
For the first seven months of the Jurgen Klinsmann era, tangible signs of progress by the U.S. men's national team have been scarce. Goals have been difficult to come by, and the Americans have often come out on the short end of the possession battle.
The temptation, then, is to think that Wednesday's 1-0 victory over Italy, the Americans' first triumph over the Italians, marks some kind of sea change. It doesn't, but progress is rarely measured in quantum leaps, and there were plenty of positive steps to be gleaned just the same.
While the U.S. engaged in some desperate defending at the end, the team largely delivered an effective and intelligent performance, one that was decided by Clint Dempsey's winner in the 55th minute. But in many respects, the win was similar to previous victories over highly touted opponents. The U.S. was content to concede possession and opportunistic in attack, but if Italy's forwards had been a bit more adept at staying onside, the result may very well have been different.
That the U.S. won was a reflection of the maturation of several players. The midfield tandem of Michael Bradley and Maurice Edu was immense, even if both did tend to drop too deep at times. Bradley's ability to play out of pressure, along with that of Dempsey, allowed the U.S. to maintain enough possession so that it wasn't completely one-way traffic. Given his form for club side Chievo, it seems inconceivable now that Bradley will ever be left out of the lineup.
Jozy Altidore, who too often in the past has been willing to abdicate the middle of the field, showed an increased willingness to engage in physical battles, and his improved holdup play was on display when he set up the winner. And Dempsey is enjoying the kind of form for both club and country that is unprecedented for an American player.
The back line deserves plaudits as well, overcoming some early organizational hiccups to stay resolute and make the plays in the box that mattered.
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Clearly, there is still a long way to go for the Americans. Possession can always be better, even against an Italy side shorn of several of its best players. And the sight of Danny Williams manning the right-midfield spot continues to mystify given his limitations going forward.
But this result will no doubt give the U.S. confidence that the path Klinsmann has charted for the team is the right one, even if it appears to have a heavier dose of pragmatism than what he envisioned when he first took over the job.
Player ratings: (1-10; 10=best)
G Tim Howard, 6 -- Was a bit suspect with his handling on balls over the top, but no complaints about his decision-making. Made a sharp save from Thiago Motta in the first half, and was steady in his positioning as the game progressed.
D Fabian Johnson, 6 -- Was nearly overrun in the early going, but eventually settled into the match and held his own defensively. He was dangerous going forward and was involved in the buildup to Dempsey's goal.
D Carlos Bocanegra, 7 -- Coordination with Goodson was lacking early on, as Italy had success with passes over the top, but Bocanegra settled down as the match went on. Flawless in dealing with Italian crosses, and his 78th-minute clearance was critical.
D Clarence Goodson, 6.5 -- Just a bit less consistent than Bocanegra, but he had more positives than negatives. Was his usual dominant self in the air, but needed to be cleaner on the ball.
D Steve Cherundolo, 6 -- Defended his side well and got forward to good effect. Probably would have been even more effective offensively if Williams had provided any kind of attacking threat.
M Michael Bradley, 8 -- Barely put a foot wrong, whether it was clogging up passing lanes, or playing his way out of trouble. A very sharp performance overall.
M Maurice Edu, 7 -- He was spot-on in deciding when to step in and when to contain, and delivered some telling through balls. Only complaint was his tendency to drop too deep, to the point he was positioned almost on top of the back line.
M Brek Shea, 4.5 -- Looked to have more jump in his legs than previous performances, but he needed to do more with his opportunities, including one clear shot in the first half that was well wide.
M Clint Dempsey, 6.5 -- Played decently in the first half, but wasn't particularly impactful aside from one bullet of a free kick in the first half. He needed to put more pressure on Andrea Pirlo as well. Dempsey kept to his task, though, and made the play that mattered, scoring the game's only goal.
M Danny Williams, 4 -- Took care of things on the defensive end, but aside from one deft pass to Dempsey, he offered little going forward and couldn't take care of the ball. Is it really necessary for Klinsmann to see him play right midfield four times before realizing his strengths lie elsewhere?
F Jozy Altidore, 6 -- Blew hot and cold initially. Was effective with his back to goal, and perfectly teed up Dempsey's goal. Didn't do much to pressure Italy's back line, but full credit for his assist and his overall competitiveness.
M Sacha Kljestan, 4 -- Needed to be more mindful of his defensive duties as he was caught ball-watching late.
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D Jonathan Spector, 6 -- Was a shot-blocking machine after coming on for Johnson and, overall, defended his side well.
F Terrence Boyd, NR -- A day to remember for the debutant.
F Edson Buddle NR -- Late cameo for the Los Angeles Galaxy forward.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at email@example.com.