- The USMNT's 2018 ended with a loss at the death, with Italy finally breaking through against a valiant Ethan Horvath and capping the USA's year of transition, frustration and new faces with defeat.
The U.S. men's national team fell for the second time in five days to European opposition, succumbing to a stoppage-time winner and losing to Italy 1-0 on Tuesday.
Matteo Politano's 94th-minute winner was the difference, with the Inter Milan attacker working a wonderful combination with PSG's Marco Verratti before beating an otherwise valiant Ethan Horvath at the death. Horvath's heroics kept the U.S. in the match throughout, but the Americans couldn't muster much in the final third, only really testing goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu on one second-half, set-piece header.
The match caps the end of a 3-5-3 run during a 2018 in which the U.S. was managed throughout by caretaker Dave Sarachan. His permanent replacement is expected to be named soon, with a January camp and a pair of February friendlies–the second of which will be against Costa Rica on Feb. 2–next up on the docket.
In the meantime, here are three thoughts on the finale to a year full of transition, frustration and new faces:
The 3-5-2 did not work
Testing out an unusual formation with personnel not accustomed to playing with one another is not likely to have fruitful results, but Sarachan had to hope for better than what he saw from the 3-5-2 formation he trotted out on Tuesday–even if it was with the youngest starting XI in the modern history of the team (22 years, 71 days). One prevalent theme throughout the year, regardless of results, has been the USA having struggles in possession while failing to gain a foothold in the game before it's too late, and that repeated once again.
Over the course of the first 45 minutes, a staggering 73%-27% possession disparity told most of the story, while being outshot 7-0 and not featuring as much as a single corner kick told more of it. Italy was content to pass it around the back as it methodically built its attack, and the times when the U.S. pressed to force the issue were inconsistent and not effective enough. The one time it looked like the USA's pressure was actually coordinated, Cameron Carter-Vickers committed a needless foul to let Italy off the hook.
The U.S. didn't really close the possession gap in the second half, was outshot 17-3 on the day and had the "3" in the 3-5-2 really operate as more of a "5" given how much pressure the U.S. was under. It's hard to generate much going forward when the wingers are forced to defend and can't properly move things forward, and the inability to consistently frustrate Italy allowed the European side the luxury of controlling the match. The result may have been sorted with the last kick, but it was thorougly deserved.
Some redemption for Horvath
When Horvath last saw minutes for the U.S. men's national team, it was in Sarachan's first match in charge, over a year ago in Portugal. He had the misfortune of scoring a horrendous howler of an own goal in the 1-1 draw, subsequently went back to his club and warmed the bench before never really earning the opportunity to redeem himself. But opportunity knocked Tuesday, with Zack Steffen's hamstring injury removing one major roadblock for him to receive minutes.
He was called into action early and often vs. the Azzurri, making a third-minute save on the perpetually dangerous Federico Chiesa and following with three more saves before halftime, all of an impressive degree. He stayed sharp over the final 45 minutes and starred in a role that has played by too many U.S. goalkeeping predecessors–absorbing blow after blow by a superior opponent. The dam finally broke late, but the goal was hardly Horvath's fault.
His distribution out of the back was shaky, to the tune of a 7/19 completion rate, but with the U.S. under as much pressure as it was, it's a credit to Horvath that he kept the Americans in the game at all.
Steffen still appears to be the incumbent No. 1–and that shouldn't figure to change if his MLS coach, Gregg Berhalter, gets the manager job as widely expected–but Horvath showed well to keep his hat in the ring and will be able to go back to his club with a much higher head than after his last cap.
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Pulisic dons the armband
It's no small feat that Pulisic became the youngest player to wear the captain's armband in the modern era for the USMNT, surpassing Landon Donovan by almost two years. Given how disengaged he was with the team during the year–despite his talent and play with Dortmund, he's not one of five finalists for U.S. Soccer's Male Player of the Year–that he wound up in a leadership role is important as the U.S. turns the page. Whether he wants it or not–and based on comments made this week, he does–this is going to become his team, whether he's the captain or not.
On Tuesday, playing in a forward role along with Josh Sargent, Pulisic was rather isolated in a game when the U.S. midfield couldn't provide service. A 14/20 passing performance with no shots and 1/3 successful dribbles (according to Opta) won't suffice, but you'd think that whoever comes in to run the show next will put the U.S. and its top attacking threat in better position to succeed.
On the whole, three appearances over the course of a year won't cut it for a player of his significance, nor will it be repeated as long as he remains healthy as the 2022 cycle unfolds. This past year was an aberration on multiple fronts, Pulisic's involvement being chief among them.