Azzurri Loves Company

Posted on March 2, 2012 11:29 am

Jay Heaps has the hardest job in MLS history?  You mean he has to sell Chivas USA tickets at face value?

Was a time when something like Italy 0-1 US would have sent the fanbase into squealing giggles of overconfidence for literally months on end.  We’re a bigger subset of the population these days, but are we wiser, or simply more cynical?  My pet theory is that nearly two decades of us and Mexico fans explaining away each others’ losses has hardened us to getting too excited about friendlies.  But I’m not sure in this case, we need to hold back.

Captain Bringdown’s Italian knockoff, Capitano Renda Triste, has been very busy this week.  Fans of plausible excuses will have enjoyed Gianluigi Buffon this week:

“Looking back at the defeats, they were all friendlies and at the end of the day we probably play our best games when there’s a lot at stake. It also helps when we play abroad in a fiery atmosphere, such as in Poland. That makes the tension rise and we are ready. I hope that is the only reason.”

Slovakia and New Zealand have not been asked to comment.

Heck, I thought at least one of the six billion offsides Italy collected was a poor call – specifically the one Alessandro Matri put into the net.  However, Tim Howard seemed to see the flag go up, said flag having bailed out Clarence Goodson, and didn’t really contest the shot.  I don’t know how Matri recovered from the shock of seeing a controversial goal not given.

But Italy seems to have lined up behind the “We played second-rate players and it didn’t count anyway” line of thinking.  Worked for Graham Taylor back in 1993.  Apparently the fans felt the same – I realize the US might not be a terribly sexy ticket in Italy, but if a US friendly were to draw half the gate of a Sounders game, that city would probably not see another national team game for twenty years.

But I don’t buy it.  The premise is that players who were picked weren’t actually trying to impress the coach, or gain a place on the Euro roster, or anything like that.  It was only the US and their ugly new shirts, so why bother breaking a sweat?  I don’t really think Italy’s borderline players are that unmotivated, though.  Pirlo certainly played well, and it’s not like this game was exactly going to define his legacy.  I didn’t think Serie A had players who couldn’t beat a US team who didn’t have Donovan or Jones, so saying “this wasn’t our best” is a serious impeachment of Italian scouting.  I know one of those guys was in Serie B – Buffon called him the best player on the team, though, so either Serie A stinks or the selection process does.

Anyway, enough about losers.  The reaction from the US fanbase is weirdly muted, at least from my point of view.  I had absolutely no faith in the US team, and said so a lot.  I was also beginning to think that when it came to Klinsmann, the emperor was getting his wardrobe from the Alex Morgan Swimsuit Store.

Well, I’m thrilled to be wrong.  I think this is why we have so many pessimist fans – when we’re wrong, we get to be elated.  When optimists are wrong, they are totally screwed.  Optimism is for suckers.

But the tone of the game analysis was set by Alexi Lalas immediately afterwards, and has largely been accepted – this was a victory of our limitations and the end of our dreams of being a high-flying, exciting fun ‘n gun thrill ride.

“But if you put it up against what has been promised, it fails to live up to that. The way that this team was successful is nothing new. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Yesterday was a wonderful example of what the U.S. is.  But when for seven months we’re talking about fundamentally changing the way the team plays and then we have a result that mirrors all that is good for many years about this team, celebrate it, but don’t tell me it’s a new style.”

Because that was ever going to happen against Italy in Italy.

Like the excuse that Italy was starting a weaker team and playing a very poor match, this line of thinking has a great deal of facts behind it. I too saw Edu and Bradley starting in the back of the midfield, and was immediately transported back to a simpler time.  This was a very, very Bob Bradley type of result, but that just means that not everything Bob Bradley did was bad.  If this was the same kind of game as winning 2-0 over Spain, that’s pretty much an unmixed blessing.

I mean, Bruce Arena doesn’t go nuts against the freaking San Jose Earthquakes when he doesn’t have Landon Donovan, so why would Klinsmann do the same against Italy?

I realize we don’t want to be stupidly euphoric about this win, but there’s no need to make a molehill out of it.  Let’s honestly look at what this win accomplished.

This was a career-defining, Hall of Fame moment for three US stalwarts.  Two of them – Dempsey and Howard – were pretty much set in US history, but this game was a jewel for them nonetheless.  Michael Bradley, however, was (probably still is) a much more problematic figure, who has taken much more criticism over the years from the fanbase.  I’ve taken my share of potshots at him, too.  But Genoa was Bradley reclaiming his spot, and in no small way justifying why he had it for so long.

That same confidence should infuse the rest of the squad for the foreseeable future.  Brek Shea, for example, was not the best player on the field.  However, he is now a player who went to Italy and won on the road.  What is ever going to intimidate him now?  What’s going to intimidate any US player?  This is going to carry the program right up until kickoff of the Azteca game.  Afterwards, of course, all bets are off, but the national team mindset that game will be as positive as any US team ever has been.

And that’s a long way down the road.  Which is the other thing the Italy game did for the program.  Klinsmann might still bungle the 2014 World Cup for us, but there will be absolutely no question that he will be the coach for us until then.  Even if you’re saying “Duh, we weren’t going to replace him anyway, we didn’t replace Steve Sampson during qualifying,” there’s such a difference between an embattled coach and an unquestioned leader that I hesitate to call it an intangible.  Klinsmann’s decisions from here on will be unquestioned, even from the most Preston Zimmermany of us.

“Klinsmann was going to call in people like Terrance Boyd anyway, and not care what we thought.”  Cool.  Now look at it from the point of view of the player.  A fanbase that trusts the coach will trust the unproven uncapped first-timer, instead of taking the field in front of suspicious skeptics expecting the worst.  I know I just said fans should be pessimists, but players prefer to play in front of optimists.  It won’t be only Boyd who benefits.  It’s got to be more fun to play for a team that believes in itself.  This was a game that benefits players who didn’t play in it.  Players putting on that stupid-looking shirt are going to be held to a much higher standard than before – and playing alongside players who believe they can maintain that standard.

I can’t quantify this effect, so again, technically it’s an intangible.  But if it’s only a placebo, man, that’s one yummy sugar pill.

Again, what Lalas said was factually correct.  This is not a quantum transcendence into elite status for the United States.  Klinsmann has not delivered what he has promised – to be fair, some of those promises were projected onto him by those of us for whom “fan” is short for “fantasist.”  But that wasn’t going to happen quickly in any case, and again, Klinsmann now has bought himself the months to years necessary to make those changes effective.

We don’t want to overstate this game – friendlies are friendlies.  This game, however, brought the US national team program that much closer to its ultimate goal, and it’s very important that all of us in the program and who love the US team keep in mind exactly what that ultimate goal is.

Getting Giuseppe Rossi to admit he made the wrong choice.

Segueing from Rossi – anyone in the mood for another discussion of the…new jersey?  (I’m hilarious.)  No?  Okay, stop reading.

I love the idea of a navy jersey being our permanent away shirt.  I wouldn’t even mind it taking over for the traditional white.  Navy blue is one of the very few colors that haven’t been claimed by a bigger, more successful nation.  (England’s Tottenham/PNE design is about the only exception, and they get their navy blue kicks below the waist, sunshine.  (Murray Head reference.))

White sleeves with dark center works for a lot of other teams – Arsenal, for example, and the New York Jets.  So why is this design a disaster?  Well, they don’t look like jerseys, they look like pinnies – especially with the mesh numbers and (I keep harping on this) the blank where the name on the back should be.  It looks like a club template, not a national team design.  And don’t get me started on the navy blue sash on the navy blue chest.  That was stupid when it was white on white, and it’s ultra-stupid now.  A white sash would have made the shirt look pretty good, or at least better.  A red sash would have been…awful, so there’s that.

I don’t expect us to look as cool as Cameroon, but something not dumb would be nice.  And what exactly was the problem with either the red or the blue with the sash that we had before, anyway?

Still, wearing stupid shirts and winning is better than wearing stupid shirts and losing.

EDIT – no one called me out for misspelling “Azzurri”?  You’re way too kind.

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