Frank Isola: Red, White and Azzurri - a one-sided rivalry

Jurgen Klinsmann faces a huge test as he leads the U.S. national team into Italy against a squad that has dominated the Americans for years.
If you are looking for a reason to be optimistic about the United States facing Italy on Wednesday consider that Jurgen Klinsmann’s greatest victory was on Italian soil 22 years ago when West Germany defeated Argentina in the 1990 World Cup Final.

Pedro Monzon’s foul - the Argentines still contend that Klinsmann dove - resulted in a straight red thus leaving the South American country down to 10 men in the last 25 minutes. West Germany eventually scored on a penalty kick in a match that was rather dull, unless you are German of course.

The stakes will be not be nearly as high when Klinsmann leads the U.S. national team into Genoa to test itself against mighty, albeit rebuilding, Italy. Yes, it is a friendly but a good result is critical for the U.S. and its development under Klinsmann, who continues to stress that he is less concerned about the final score as opposed to how his team plays. (That’s what coaches tend to say when they know the deck is stacked against them.)

But when you’ve never beaten Italy and are presented with a rare chance of playing the four-time World Cup champions in their country it is foolish to act as if the score doesn’t matter.

"It will be a very difficult game for us,'' U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley told the AP. “Italy has a squad that's full of champions and for us it will be a good test.”

Bradley understands the importance of the match more than most. He plays in Italy with Serie A club Chievo Verona and has become completely immersed in the nation’s sporting culture. So much so that Bradley has picked up the language pretty quickly.

Bradley was on the field the last time the two countries met at the ’09 FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa. Italy outclassed the Americans, 3-1, behind two goals from New Jersey-born Giuseppe Rossi. Klinsmann would love to have someone as experienced and lethal as Rossi, who made the controversial decision to play for the country of his ancestry.


Alas, Italy won’t have Rossi either since he is still recovering from injury. Antonio Cassano is also unfit and Manchester City’s volatile yet talented Mario Balotelli was left off Italy’s roster. In fact, there’s a chance Balotelli may not make it to the European Championships this summer in Poland and Ukraine.

Italy’s coach Cesare Prandelli introduced a code of ethics following the Azzurri’s disappointing showing at the 2010 World Cup. He has promised that any player who fails to live up to those standards will be omitted from the roster. Consider Balotelli on double secret probation.

"Players know that by acting this way they're putting a call-up for the Euros at risk,'' Prandelli told reporters. "It's time to stop with these things, kicking out in reaction and hitting. It's a sign of weakness. Anyone who risks leaving the team down to 10 players at the Euros cannot be in the national team.”

Klinsmann also demands accountability as he tries to develop a winning culture. It’s been a slow process with Klinsmann in charge. The U.S. is 4-4-1 in Klinsmann’s first nine matches.

But the Americans may be starting to turn the cover in the aftermath of November’s impressive 3-2 victory over Slovenia. The U.S., which previously defeated Venezuela and Panama with mostly backups, takes a three-game winning streak into Genoa.

However, Klinsmann will be without his best player, attacking midfielder Landon Donovan, who was scratched due to bronchitis. Jermaine Jones, Jose Torres and Timmy Chandler are also unavailable, forcing Klinsmann to call in reinforcements in Sacha Kljestan and Brek Shea.

Donovan’s illness is unfortunate because for the 10th time in Klinsmann’s 10-game tenure, the team’s two most dynamic players, Donovan and Clint Dempsey, will not play together.

"We are a real team,” Bradley contends, according to the AP. “Every player plays for his teammates and we have a strong mentality. That helps us forward in difficult times.”

The last time the United States played the Azzurri in Italy was at the 1990 World Cup, three weeks before Klinsmann and West Germany captured the trophy,

Back then the U.S. was a glorified college All-Star team featuring Tony Meola, John Harkes and Tab Ramos. And yet, the Americans went into Stadio Olimpico in Rome and nearly scored a late equalizer in a 1-0 loss.

Sixteen years later, they played the eventual champs to a 1-1 draw in the group stage at the 2006 World Cup by virtue of an own goal. The Italians were also forced to play a may down after Daniele De Rossi was shown a straight red card for elbowing Brian McBride in the face and drawing blood.

It is a physical rivalry with plenty of drama but it completely one-sided. The draw in 2006 was a terrific result for the United States. Klinsmann will gladly take that same result against a world power on Wednesday.

In fact, he really needs it.