The U.S. national team was just seconds away from a result it didn't deserve against an opponent that dominated the entire match, but a last-second goal by Italy doomed the Americans to a loss.
It was a performance that summed up 2018 perfectly.
The Italians thoroughly dominated the U.S. team. Only the heroics of U.S. goalkeeper Ethan Horvath and the wasteful finishing of misfiring Italian striker Kevin Lasagna kept the result from being an ugly one.
It almost ended in a misleading result before Matteo Politano finished off a beautiful Italian passing sequence that was a work of art compared to the stick figure soccer the Americans played. A deserved goal for a deserved win, and equally deserving loss for the United States.
Dave Sarachan's final lineup in charge as interim USMNT coach saw him trot out the youngest starting U.S. side in modern history. But, rather than deploying the squad in a bold attacking setup, Sarachan put his U.S. team in what amounted to a 5-3-2 that produced very little attack and left the American defenders chasing Italians around for the better part of 90 minutes.
It was a tactical setup similar to the one Sarachan used against France last June, before the World Cup. That day, France thoroughly dominated the Americans. The 1-1 final score turned the narrative of the match into one of the U.S. underdog earning a respectable draw rather than the reality that they were outclassed for most of the night and needed a goalkeeper — then Zack Steffen — to bail them out.
If Tuesday's loss did anything, it served to magnify the sense that 2018 has been a wasted year for a team that has gone 13 months without hiring a new full-time coach. On Tuesday, the Americans played in a system we're unlikely to see any new coach employ, using a group of players we are equally unlikely to ever see together again. The result was a timid performance by a team desperately devoid of any clear identity or cohesiveness, even after spending this year bringing in younger players.
That was probably the most frustrating thing about Tuesday's loss to Italy, just how fearful the approach felt. It was one thing to be go with an ultra-defensive setup playing eventual World Cup-winning France in Lyon, but to show that same respect to a young Italian side in a match played in Belgium was truly mind-boggling.
Before you trot out the familiar excuse that this is a young U.S. team that must endure growing pains, consider that the England and Italy teams that just put on soccer clinics against those same American youngsters were also young teams playing several new faces. That didn't stop either of those teams from looking more like teams than the United States, which spent the November friendlies looking like they had never seen each other before.
If anything, maybe the late Italy goal was a blessing for the United States. It produced the result the Americans deserved, and should put things in proper perspective rather than some idealized and unrealistically positive depiction of how this year has gone.
Calling 2018 a complete waste would be harsh. The reality is some talented young players received some valuable experiences, but it isn't a stretch to say this year could have been, and should have been, so much more for the USMNT.
This year should have been a new coach's chance to implement his system against tough competition and the team's opportunity to adapt to a set style of play. What it wound up becoming was a frustrating year that can't end soon enough for a program in desperate need of a reboot after spending more than a year stuck in place.