U.S. versus Italy

U.S. not reading too much into previous encounter with Italy

June 13, 2009
LathamBy Brent Latham

PRETORIA, South Africa -- The United States men's national team will open play in the 2009 Confederations Cup on Monday against defending World Cup champion Italy (2:25 p.m. ET, ESPN, ESPN360.com) in a game that would be a tough opening test for any team kicking off an international tournament.

APU.S. players like Dan Califf have been a big hit for the South African fans.

But for the Americans, who have faced two pressure-packed CONCACAF qualifiers on the other side of the Atlantic in the last 10 days, the game is likely to feel less like an opener and more like the continuation of monthlong series of matches, similar to the second round of the World Cup format.

Midfielder Michael Bradley says the team will benefit from having already been together as a group for almost three weeks, as they prepared for and played the World Cup qualifiers against Costa Rica and Honduras.

"We've been together for a little while; we've gotten back into the groove of being with each other," Bradley said after a practice session in Pretoria, where the U.S. will take on Italy. "We've played two big games already, and we feel like the time we've spent together has gotten us ready for these games now."

The U.S. is in South Africa for the sixth edition of the Confederations Cup, which brings together the champions from all six confederations, along with defending World Cup champion Italy and host nation South Africa, in what is described by players and organizers alike as a tune-up for next year's World Cup.

Despite the relaxed, low-pressure atmosphere relative to qualifying, the Americans say they still have plenty to play for. Bradley, who plays his professional soccer in Germany's Bundesliga, says he sees the first round of the tournament as a chance to gauge the team's progress over the last year, by comparing the results to those obtained in the series of friendlies played in quick succession last summer against England, Spain and Argentina.

"This is a chance to play three really good games a year before the World Cup, in some of the same stadiums," Bradley said. "At the same time, for the team it's an important measuring stick because this time last year we played three games against big teams. And now we have another chance a year later to see the progress we've made."

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Italy
June 15
Tshwane/Pretoria, South Africa
2:25 p.m. ET, ESPN, ESPN360

U.S. vs. Brazil
June 18
Tshwane/Pretoria, South Africa
9:55 a.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360

U.S. vs. Egypt
June 21
Rustenburg, South Africa
2:25 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360

The team is adapting to the climate of the South African fall. It has been cold and rainy since their arrival Tuesday, with temperatures dipping into the mid-40s. After a 90-minute practice session in which players barely broke a sweat, despite playing a full-field scrimmage for nearly half that time, coach Bob Bradley said the accommodating weather was likely to make for some exciting soccer throughout the tournament.

"The travel here was very good, and the weather here is good for football," the coach said. "I think the players enjoy coming out on a day like today and knowing that this makes for fast-tempo games and a lot of excitement."

Italy kicked off its preparation for the tournament with just such a match, a 4-3 victory over New Zealand in a friendly played in nearby Rustenburg on Wednesday night. But the Americans say they are not taking much away from that closer-than-expected result, or looking back to the 2006 World Cup. That summer in Germany, a first-round 1-1 draw with Italy kept the Americans alive and would prove to be the only match the Italians failed to win on their run to the championship.

"That was a great match back in 2006, with a lot of emotion," said current team captain Carlos Bocanegra, who played left back in that game. "But I think now we have a lot of new guys on the team, and it's a new match. They have a lot of new guys coming in as well, so I don't think we'll look back on that match for inspiration. It's more of a measuring stick against one of the best teams in the world."

As in 2006, the Americans have experienced some difficulty of late in creating chances and scoring from the run of play. Players agree that if the U.S. is to surprise Italy, they will need to produce more dangerous attacking play and take advantage of their opportunities.

"We know Italy fairly well, they play the same style they always have," said Jonathan Spector, who is likely to start at right back. "They are the world champions. We're really looking forward to testing ourselves. We'll have certain parts of the game where we'll have possession, and it's a matter of making the most of those opportunities and creating some good chances."

The U.S. will want to get a result from the Italy match to avoid falling into an early hole in Group B, with Brazil on tap for the second match three days later. By calling upon their recent experience battling through tough games in recent weeks, the Americans are convinced they can do much more than just make up the numbers in their difficult group.

Brent Latham covers U.S. Soccer for ESPNsoccernet. Based in Dakar, Senegal, he also covers West Africa for Voice of America radio and can be reached at brentlatham@ymail.com.