GENOA, Italy -- To understand the significance of the U.S.' 1-0 friendly win over Italy here on Wednesday, it's good to know what it was and what it wasn't. Was it historic? By all means, yes. The U.S. had never beaten Italy in 10 previous games going back to 1934. Winning against a four-time world champion on the road is always important, even if the game doesn't count. And yet the U.S. players were still cognizant that there were limits to how much you should take out of the result.
"We fight for respect every time we step on the field, so every little bit helps," said Michael Bradley, who was probably the U.S.'s best player in the central midfield. "When you come to Italy and you're able to play a game like that and come away with a win, it's a big result. At the same time, we're not going to sit here and act like just because we won a friendly 1-0 that now they're handing out the World Cup trophy. We'll take it for what it is and use it as a stepping stone."
The game provided the clearest evidence yet that Bradley can in fact thrive under coach Jurgen Klinsmann. After taking a while to assert himself in the first few months of the new regime, Bradley was a rock against the Italians, breaking up plays alongside Maurice Edu, positioning himself well and linking up with the attack on occasion. In many ways he out-Italianed the Italians.
"Michael had an outstanding game," said Klinsmann afterward. "Half a year ago, he had a difficult situation with his club. When he told me he was going to Italy [to join Chievo], I said, 'Michael, this is exactly the step you need now, to go to Italy and learn the whole tactical side of the game, to really read the space and read the game in advance. You will learn a hell of a lot.' Today he wanted to show that. He made a huge step forward in his own career coming here."
It's important to note here that the U.S. didn't reinvent the wheel in its approach to Italy. In fact, Klinsmann approached the game not much differently than the U.S. approached top opponents under Bob Bradley (Michael's father): by tightening up on defense and looking for the occasional opportunistic counter. Klinsmann may advocate using a more attacking style against midlevel and CONCACAF foes, but Italy in Italy is a different matter. And for now that pragmatic style is just fine, even if it isn't revolutionary.
The U.S.' main strategy was to clamp down on the passes coming over the top from the ageless Andrea Pirlo, who's made a career of pinging it around "like Brett Favre dropping balls on these guys' feet when they're running," as U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra put it. "It's frustrating. You think you have a good position and he has time to do that. He's a good player. They had a few chances, but we limited them."
The U.S. back line had to go through an adjustment period after Pirlo's passes created early chances for Alessandro Matri, Sebastian Giovinco and Thiago Motta (whose shot was saved well by Tim Howard). But the U.S. settled down and improved its timing on the back line, especially center back Clarence Goodson, who had been a step off in the opening minutes.
"We knew what they were going to do: Dink balls over the top," said Howard. "I thought we played it well. The first couple were a little hairy, but we got the hang of it. We dropped the lines at the right times, and we stepped up and pressed them in the hole." Time and again the U.S.' coordinated back line work caused the Italians to be offside.
No one would say the U.S. created many chances in its own attacking third, but quantity matters less than quality, which is what Clint Dempsey has in spades these days. The 28-year-old Texan has been tearing up the Premier League this season with Fulham, and he continued his torrid form against Italy, scoring the game-winner on a nice team effort in the 55th minute.
Left back Fabian Johnson, a German-American making his second U.S. start, sent a pass to Jozy Altidore in the box. Altidore looked for his own shot first, he said, but then he saw Dempsey lurking just behind him. "He was in a great spot, so it was a no-brainer," Altidore said. "I just tried to put it where he could hit it one-time. It looks like an easy goal, but it's not. He looked at the keeper and wrong-footed him. It was a fantastic finish."
"I was going to try to stay where I was and get a shot off, and I felt like that wasn't going to happen," Dempsey said. "So I tried to move to my right side and get in an area where I could get a shot on goal. When he played the ball I tried to get a good first touch and hit it hard and low." Dempsey's shot didn't just beat any goalkeeper, either; it was Gianluigi Buffon, one of the world's best over the last 15 years.
The Americans hung on gamely as Italy threw a barrage at them in the final minutes, with late sub Jonathan Spector blocking a number of shots in a solid team effort. Afterward, the U.S. players caught the right tone, realizing the historical importance of the victory while remembering that more important games await.
"I feel like we've been shortchanged a bit the past few times we've played them, with the red card in the Confederations Cup [in '09] and the red cards in the World Cup [in '06]," said Bocanegra. "To come here and beat Italy on its soil feels really good."
"I know it was a friendly and you don't get much for it, but it's a heck of a lot better than losing," said Howard afterward. "And it was historic. The fact that it was the first time ever [beating Italy], that's pretty cool."