The U.S. men's national team concludes its 2018 slate on Tuesday, when it faces Italy in Genk, Belgium. The randomness of the location (chosen by the Italian federation, it should be noted) is an appropriate metaphor for what's largely been a shoulder-shrug of a year spent testing new things. While a lot of new faces have been introduced and a lot of younger players have accrued experience–of both the positive and negative variety based on the balance of results and run of play–there's still no permanent manager in place, 13 months on from a World Cup qualifying fiasco, and there's still a clamoring for a defined direction.
Some of that clamoring comes from Christian Pulisic, who made it clear in comments before and after last Thursday's loss to England that he is pining for a full-time coach with a set plan for this group on the rise.
Italy presents a final test before turning the page for good, though the Azzurri aren't exactly bringing their A team after sending a number of established veterans home following a 0-0 home draw with Portugal in the UEFA Nations League on Saturday.
Here's what to keep an eye on ahead of both teams' final match of 2018:
A similar boat
Like the USA, Italy also missed out on the World Cup in stunning fashion. It didn't have as cataclysmic of a showing in qualifying, finishing second to Spain in their UEFA group (its 7-1-2 record was the same as France's in qualifying, and Italy had a better goal differential, for perspective sake) before falling to Sweden 1-0 on aggregate in a two-legged playoff. That's just a bit more honorable than winning three of 10 games in the Concacaf Hexagonal and failing to beat or draw Trinidad & Tobago to secure a top-three finish.
Nevertheless, Italy made sweeping changes, rather instantly. Manager Gian Piero Ventura was fired, and, after Luigi Di Bagio's three-month interim run, Roberto Mancini stepped into the permanent job in May. Italy's federation president, Carlo Tavecchio, resigned a week after the qualifying debacle, and after an election fiasco in January that saw none of the candidates receive the required 50% plus one to win the position, Gabriele Gravina finally won in last month's follow-up vote.
On the field, Italy has stayed the course with a number of veterans–Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, Alessandro Florenzi, Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne are stlil a key part of the core–and also tested bringing back Mario Balotelli, though he was not part of this camp. The Azzurri are in the midst of introducing new, rising talent and have Euro 2020 qualifying on the mind after staving off relegation in the Nations League. They've gone 2-3-5 in 2018.
The U.S., meanwhile has gone 3-4-3 in a 2018 friendlies-only slate in which a number of new players have been introduced to the program. Dave Sarachan is still in charge as an interim boss, with a contract that runs through the end of the year, and he has given out first caps to 22 players over the last 12 months–last November's Portugal draw included–in an effort to restock the pool as past veterans are ushered out. Sunil Gulati opted, eventually, not to run for re-election as U.S. Soccer president after World Cup qualifying failure, and he was supplanted by his former vice president, Carlos Cordeiro.
Both missed the World Cup for differing reasons, both have their own defined way of turning the page and their roads converge in Belgium, of all places, where Italy looks to continue its all-time domination of their history vs. one another. Italy's only loss in 11 matches (7-1-3) to the U.S. came in 2012, when a Clint Dempsey goal in Genoa tilted the scales. Not a single player who saw the field that day will suit up in Genk.
Reduced roster, part I
So much for the play-all-the-studs-together plan. After barely getting an opportunity to work with Pulisic and Tyler Adams on the field at the same time, Weston McKennie has departed camp, with what U.S. Soccer is calling a hamstring tendon injury. The 20-year-old Texan has returned to Schalke and will miss the Italy match, along with fellow midfielders Luca de la Torre (Fulham) and Kenny Saief (Anderlecht). Given Saief plays his club soccer in Belgium, his exit is a bit curious. The trio won't be replaced, leaving Sarachan with 23 players at his disposal for the match.
After sitting out the England game with an ankle injury, 18-year-old Josh Sargent said "I'll be ready" during pre-match training in Belgium, and Sarachan indicated he's ready for selection in his pre-match comments as well, so look for the Werder Bremen rising star to get a chance after he impressed vs. Peru. His potential combination with Adams, Tim Weah and Christian Pulisic against an Italian defense should be a key focal point for viewers.
Otherwise, more line up changes are expected from one game to the next, as has generally been the case during these windows under Sarachan. Adams sat for the first hour vs. England, and it remains to be seen how much Sarachan will push him given the Red Bulls kick off the MLS conference semifinals on Sunday. The same goes for Jorge Villafaña, the only true left back on the roster, who nearly went the distance vs. England. Might Sarachan go with three in the back to do the Timbers a solid and preserve his legs? Or would Shaq Moore or Reggie Cannon flip over to their unnatural side to provide cover? Antonee Robinson's injury limits the options there.
Reduced roster, part II
Italy, too, has sent some of its talent packing ahead of the second match of the window. Actually, it's sent much of its stars packing. Coming off a scoreless draw vs. Nations League semifinal-bound Portugal, Italy has dropped potential starters Chiellini, Florenzi, Jorginho, Insigne, Immobile and Lorenzo Pellegrini. Instead, Mancini will, like the USA, turn to a largely young and untested squad. All eyes are on midfield dynamo Sandro Tonali and rising forward stars Federico Chiesa and Moise Kean, who should get a run-out at a defense that was thrashed by England. Here's Italy's new-look squad, which remains formidable–especially in the back–but is missing a number of chief contributors:
GOALKEEPERS: Alessio Cragno (Cagliari), Gianluigi Donnaurumma (AC Milan), Salvatore Sirigu (Torino)
DEFENDERS: Francesco Acerbi (Lazio), Cristiano Biraghi (Fiorentina), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Mattia De Sciglio (Juventus), Gianluca Manchini (Atalanta), Emerson Palmieri (Chelsea), Daniele Rugani (Juventus)
MIDFIELDERS: Nicolò Barella (Cagliari), Roberto Gagliardini (Inter Milan), Vincenzo Grifo (Hoffenheim), Stefano Sensi (Sassuolo), Sandro Tonali (Brescia), Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain)
FORWARDS: Domenico Berardi (Sassuolo), Federico Chiesa (Fiorentina), Moise Kean (Juventus), Kevin Lasagna (Udinese), Leonardo Pavoletti (Cagliari), Matteo Politano (Inter Milan)
VAR guinea pigs
UEFA announced that VAR will be tested at the Italy-USA match, in preparation for the confederation implementing the technology for the 2019-20 Champions League, Euro 2020, the 2020-21 Europa League and 2021 Nations League tournaments. It's just another new wrinkle to a match that will be full of experimentation for both sides.