3QD’s World Cup Analyst Alex Cooley: Team USA, Heroes of Kaiserslautern

[Alex writes] After the Gelsenkirchen Massacre at last a display to take some pride in for us yank fans! Cooley had been eagerly anticipating the showdown with Italians, dreaming that my Italian friend Guido would make me cappuccinos and fresh pesto on demand for the next four years after we stuck it to them. I was in Berlin for the game and trying to find a Yank-friendly bar when my German friend Mattes surprised me with a spare ticket to a match viewing at the Adidas Arena by the Brandenburg gate.

The Adidas World is a large complex of various soccer shops and 5-a-side pitches that has been set-up right in front of the Reichstadt, which looks magnificent at night when lit up. Even as a large corporate ad, the area is actually quite tasteful, with lots of different national supporters strolling around and lots of games of intense World Cup enhanced pick-up games going on. Its centerpiece is an actual stadium – the Adidas Arena – that is a 1 to 10 smaller version of the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, the setting for the final. Inside there is stadium seating for thousands and a decorative pitch, along with 2 giant screens.

And of course there were thousands of fans, most of them Italians – although thank goodness a minimum of Brazil-jockers. With loud chants of “I-TAL-IA, I-TAL-IA!!” blaring in the arena we took our seats. A group of three italian fans wearing tall, funny-jester like hats yucked it up in the middle of the arena with the beaming commentator and boldly predicted a comfortable 2-0 or 3-0 win for their Euro-side. But the game would be anything but routine for the Azzurri.

The US came out much more aggressively and tactically astute than against the Czechs. Previously the team had looked passive, as if they were hoping to play for a draw and maybe create a few counter chances. That also appeared to be the Italian expectation because the 3-time world cup champions had no answers when the US came out pressuring them throughout the field and created bunches of mistakes and turnovers. The American midfield dominated play, as Toni and Totti were frustrated by man-markers and the playmaker Pirlo was forced much deeper than usual and resorted to hoofing-up England-style long balls that hardly threatened a rock solid defense. For the US, Clint Dempsey looked like a match-winner on the right and was giving Zambrotta fits with his creative runs. Landon Donovan was excellent all night as he showed a wide array of clever touches, turns and little slalom runs through the Italian middle..

Then the first of many controversial refereeing decisions gave the Italians a free kick on the right wing, after their player dived over a challenge (in a similar spot to where Ballack had thrown himself to secure the winning free kick in the US-GER Q-final 4 years ago.) Pirlo’s free kick swerved with precision to pick out an unmarked Giraldino who nodded gleefully past the helpless Keller. No matter that Luca Toni (the other forward) had bear-hugged Gooch to prevent him from covering the play. The US simply does not get those sorts of refereeing decisions, especially in Europe. We were 1 goal down after a classic sucker punch and on course to exit the tournament after just 6 days.

But the US kept its composure and sound game plan. 5 minutes later another Dempsey move on the right created a free kick opportunity in almost the mirror position as the Italian one. Left-footer Bobby Convey swung in a decent ball which the hapless wing-back Zaccardo sliced into the corner of his own net. All of a sudden 1-1. All of a sudden hope. All of a sudden the World Cup had finally arrived for us. Shock throughout the arena was followed by delirious outbursts of joy from the US fans and a flying Cooley throughout the Adidas Arena.

Then, just a minute later, Italian defensive midfielder and thuggish enforcer Del Rossi slammed an elbow straight into the face of Brian McBride. Del Rossi was given a straight red card for the textbook definition of “serious foul play” while McBride’s bloody face required three stitches. The resulting still photograph which I understand made the cover of the New York Daily News probably did more to advance the image of US soccer within the states than anything that could have happened on the field.

But just as it seemed as if the US was in with a great opportunity to continue to press and take all three points disaster struck either side of half time. First, Pablo Mastroeni was awarded a straight red card for an unnecessary lunge tackle. The tackle was not great, but was not deserving of a red given the kind of physical-from-behind challenges that had characterized the rest of the match. Then, two minutes into the second half defender Eddie Pope was given his second yellow of the match and all of a sudden the US found itself playing with 9 men against Italy’s 10 for almost an entire 45-minute half.

Playing soccer with 10 or shorthanded by 1 is bad enough – playing with 9 men for an entire half is absolutely nuts. The guys heroically ran, covered, tackled and made brilliant positional adjustments. The 9-man team even seemed to have snatched the potential winner through a Beasley shot but forward Brian McBride was judged to have been in the Italian goalkeeper’s line of sight (because he did not actually touch the ball) – not that Buffon would have gotten to it anyway. Over the last 10 minutes the US team predictably tired and through sheer guts and determination staved off the final waves of Italian attacks. “Peep, peep, peep.” .the end of the match was greeted with a thunderous roar by the Yanks and many now-converted Yank-supporting neutrals, while the Italians left the arena with heads bowed, joker hats now off in stunned silence.

Given how well we started the match a draw was not ideal, but with 9 men and playing against a savvy positional team the point was absolutely priceless. Combined with Ghana’s win over the Czechs, the US now has a fighting chance (although still not probable) of making the next round if it can beat the excellent Ghanaians.

Following the game the Azzurri’s manager Lippi said that the Italian side had “underestimated the US,” a shocking admission by a World Cup manager who had been tactically outmaneuvered by his American counterpart.

At various post-game venues I received many compliments from Euro-supporters, many of who seemed bemused that I thought we had let a great opportunity for a historical win slip away. And yes, if by somehow minor miracle things go our way on Thursday, we get Brazil next round..mouthwatering. In any case, its nice to be a Yank supporter in Berlin with some pride restored…