U.S. U-17s match up well against Italy
KANO, Nigeria -- If the round-of-16 matchup between the United States and Italy at the Under-17 World Cup (Wednesday, 10 a.m. ET, ESPN360.com) were to be decided in terms of soccer history, it would be over before it began. If the match turned on the number of international superstars produced by each country, the quality of the professional league or World Cup finishes, there would be no need to take the field.
Luckily for Wilmer Cabrera's American team, none of those factors will count Wednesday in Kaduna. And the U.S. will have good reason to believe it can at least give the Azzurrini a serious run for their money.
Games at the youth level have little to do with soccer history or resume, and looking at the facts from play thus far in Nigeria -- without taking into account the color of the jerseys -- the Americans should stand a good chance to execute their game plan and knock off the youth version of the world champions.
Many will heavily favor Italy on reputation alone. Those who do obviously haven't been paying much attention to this tournament so far.
"You can see by the teams that have already been eliminated, like Brazil and Holland, that any time you come to a world championship, it is very challenging, and this match is no different," Italian coach Pasquale Salerno said.
An analysis of play in Nigeria to this point suggests the Americans might have the upper hand on the Italians in a few areas that could be pivotal. The Americans have created vastly more goal-scoring chances than the Italians through three games and have seen much more of the ball.
Italy managed seven points from three matches in topping Group F, but in typical Italian fashion, none of those points came easily. The Azzurrini struggled with Algeria in their opening match, taking all the points on a late second-half goal by substitute Federico Carraro. They then had to stage a second-half comeback to knock off Korea before Sunday's scoreless sleeper with Uruguay elicited boos from an irritated crowd.
|U.S. U-17 men's schedule|
U.S. versus Italy
10 a.m. ET, ESPN360.com
Still, that's the Italian modus operandi, and the pragmatic Italian team considered its first-round exploits a success.
"At this point, we're quite satisfied regarding the three matches we have played, above all the second match, which was the most important for us," said attacker Marco Fossati of Inter Milan.
The Italian game traditionally has been a counter-attacking one, and that has proved true for this young team as well. The Italians were outpossessed in all three of their group matches, ceding the ball to their opponents and staying organized in the back, then attacking at opportune moments.
The Italians based their squad around a solid defense that features Simone Sini of AS Roma and Michele Camporese of Fiorentina. When Italy does go forward, Fossati and Inter Milan teammate Lorenzo Crisetig provide silky ball control, attempting to link up with forward Giacomo Beretta. The growing AC Milan star is the Italians' principal goal-scoring threat, although their three strikes thus far have come through the Fiorentina triple threat of Carraro, Camporese and Pietro Iemmello.
On the other side of the possession spectrum are the Americans, who held the ball more than all three of their first-round opponents. Whether the U.S. succeeds in taking advantage of the possessions the Italians give it or falls into the counter-attack trap will depend largely on how well the Americans keep their defensive shape and avoid turning the ball over in compromising positions when they attack in numbers. Those are areas in which the Americans have improved during their three games in Nigeria.
After that comes the significant matter of ratcheting up that tepid finishing. Luis Gil, Stefan Jerome and Alex Shinsky all had chances to put the U.A.E. away Sunday but could not take advantage of clear opportunities, leaving the Americans to sweat out a close match. The more professional Italians are likely to punish that sort of waste in the clinical manner the Spaniards did in the Americans' first loss.
"If the opportunities we create can be finished, then we'll be happy, but we are going to keep playing and improving our level," Cabrera said. "We know we are going to have one of the top teams in front of us and it's not going to be easy."
Professionalism is perhaps the Italians' greatest advantage over the Americans. While Cabrera's players are mostly still affiliated with youth club teams back home, the roll call of the teams for which the Italians line up reads like a who's who of Serie A, with AC Milan, Inter, Roma and Juventus all figuring.
But the Americans have been through that name game before, and at this point in the tournament, it isn't likely to rattle them. Nor are the Italians, or their coach, selling the U.S. short.
"We will now focus on a very good, very strong team. No weak teams make it through to this round. It is hard at this round, and we will have to work to advance," said Salerno of the Americans. "They demonstrated by winning the [U.A.E.] game that they are in a good moment. They play really good football."
The quality of that football, and not their soccer pedigree, is what the young Americans will be counting on Wednesday. If they can erase the psychological disadvantage of facing the young Azzurri and play their game, the Americans' chances of advancing will be that much better.
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 email@example.com.