Saturday, June 17, 2006

Italy 1, U.S. 1

Yep, soccer produced another "boring" tie today. I've never understood that criticism; how simply because a sport results in ties on a regular basis it must be "boring." The game between the U.S. and Italy featured much more action, drama, and heroics than your typical CWS baseball game (which, since it is held in my hometown, everyone seems to be in love with.) Anyway, on with the game...

First, the most obvious effect on the game, the ref. And let me stop right there to say that the fact that the ref had such an obvious effect on the game is a criticism in and of itself, because referees are supposed to stay out of the game as much as possible, although this rarely happens at the international level. Witness Eric Wynalda's statement about his only having ever seen "two kinds of refs: bad refs, and worse refs." The referee handed out 3 expulsions (red cards), a sizeable number for an international match, and 4 cautions (yellow cards). While the first red card, given to the Italian De Rossi for flagrantly elbowing McBride in the face was definitely deserved, the two given to the U.S. were most definitely not. Mastroeni was given a red card for what should have been a foul, maybe a yellow card at most. A red card for a two footed tackle from the side which knocks a guy over is absurd. Eddie Pope's second yellow (and resulting red) was even more ludicrous. All Eddie did was play aggressive soccer, with a hard-in tackle that knocked an Italian player over; the tackle got ball, Eddie did not come in high, and the tackle was not malicious in nature. Calling a foul for this is borderline, giving a second yellow that results in a red is idiotic. Making the story all the better is the fact that Jorge Larrionda, the referee, was suspended by his national association in Uruguay from refereeing at the 2002 World Cup after other referees reported "irregularities" in his officiating. I'll let Wynalda have the last word on Larrionda: "Players win games, coaches lose them, and referees ruin them." As both a player and a referee, I couldn't agree more.

Sadly, it is likely that the only news most Americans will hear about the game is the referee scandal. How about the fact that the U.S. played a powerful Italian team to a 1-1 draw even playing two men down for most of the second half? Granted, we got a little bit of help from Italian player Cristian Zaccardo's own goal (probably the most pathetic own goal I've ever seen in international play) but hey, while it's great to be good, being lucky helps too. Speaking of being good, Bruca Arena deserves some major credit for his tactics in this match. Going with a 4-1-4-1 made a huge difference, as packing the midfield defensively allowed the U.S. to get some major pressure on the Italians, completely throwing off their rhythmn, leading to what I feel is the most important statistic of the match: 11 Italian offside calls to 1 U.S. call. While that may not seem that excesive, especially to a non-soccer player, consider this: the average of teams for the ENTIRE TOURNAMENT thus far is only 5 calls. Not per game, 5 calls over the entire tournament. Granted, the Italians did a poor job of adjusting, but the fact remains that the U.S. was able to throw off their timing in the midfield on almost every advance, even if only by a second of two.

This is the game that I feel really cements the U.S.'s place in the world arena of soccer. While our victory over Mexico and our tough loss against Germany in '02 showed we had arrived, our blowout by the Czechs gave doubters some ammunition. This game should wipe away a lot of those doubts: a U.S. team played a very good Italian team evenly, and then fought back with a lot of heart against the odds when forced to play outmanned. Now we just have to whup up on Ghana (not as easy as it sounds; they beat the Czechs 2-0) and hope that Italy can knock off the Czechs.