When Jurgen Klinsmann was hired as the US men’s national team head coach last July, his mission was as simple as it was daunting: Take the Yanks to the next level in international competition. And Wednesday's friendly against Italy – currently No. 8 in the FIFA world rankings – at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris in Genoa (2:30 pm ET, ESPN2) should go some way to determining where the US stack up against the world’s elite.
The US have never beaten Italy, posting an overall record of 0 wins, 7 losses, and 3 draws. The US have scored only four goals in those 10 matches, and conceded 32.
They lost their last outing against the Italians, 3-1, in the group stage of the 2009 Confederations Cup, as New Jersey-born Giuseppe Rossi bagged two for the Azzurri. Despite the loss, the US advanced out of the group at Italy's expense and eventually reached the final.
In their previous encounter, the Americans heroically drew with the Italians 1-1 in the group stage of the 2006 World Cup in a match that saw three ejections. Though the US were the only team that managed to avoid defeat against them, Italy went on to win the tournament while the Yanks failed to advance out of the group.
With European leagues in full swing and MLS just returning from a three-month hiatus, Klinsmann’s squad has a largely Old World flavor. Only four MLS players will make the trip to Italy: Geoff Cameron, Nick Rimando, Brek Shea and newly returned LA Galaxy striker Edson Buddle, who has spent the last year plying his trade with German club FC Ingolstadt.
Notably absent from the list of MLSers is Buddle’s Galaxy teammate, Landon Donovan, who is sitting out the match with a case of bronchitis. Pachuca midfielder José Francisco Torres and Nürnberg fullback Timothy Chandler have also been forced withdraw after picking up injuries last weekend in club play, while Jermaine Jones has been ruled out with a calf strain.
The departure of Donovan, in particular, means that US fans will once again miss their chance to see how the Landon Donovan-Clint Dempsey partnership works under Klinsmann. The two potent attackers have yet to play on the same field together under the German coach.
To fill the gap, Klinsmann has brought in Shea – who, though he’s made nine consecutive appearances for the Red, White and Blue, will be forced to take time away from the US Olympic squad as they face Mexico on Wednesday – and Anderlecht midfielder Sacha Kljestan.
The former Chivas USA playmaker’s inclusion is particularly interesting. Kljestan, now a regular starter for an Anderlecht side that recently reached the round of 16 in the Europa League, hasn’t played for the US since September, and will likely need to make a good impression to guarantee a future call-up.
Klinsmann has also brought in young Borussia Dortmund striker Terrence Boyd to provide even more depth and competition up top, putting pressure AZ Alkmaar’s Jozy Altidore for the starting role. Since the German coach took over, the US have only had one multi-goal game – a 3-2 win in a friendly against Slovenia – and have been shut out on four occasions.
Altidore is coming off a two-goal performance against Heerenveen last weekend, but replicating that performance against the battle-tested defense of the Italians may prove to be a tougher task.
Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo aside, there are surprisingly few familiar faces in Italy’s squad. Daniele De Rossi – still notorious among US fans for his elbow on Brian McBride in Germany '06 – continues to anchor the Azzurri midfield, while veteran Giorgio Chiellini will likely anchor the back line.
With Euro 2012 just around the corner, however, the match against the US will be a time for Italy manager Cesare Prandelli to experiment and tweak his squad to his liking. Prandelli has called nine defenders into camp, and while Christian Maggio and Andrea Barzagli were stalwarts during Italy’s successful Euro qualifying campaign, there are many more new faces to be seen.
Earning his first call-up is Fabio Borini, who’s been called way from the Italian Olympic squad for the seniors’ tussle against the US, while mercurial Manchester City star Mario Balotelli has been omitted from the squad for disciplinary reasons.
Italy lost their last outing, a friendly against Uruguay 1-0, just days after defeating Euro co-hosts Poland 2-0. Over the course of their qualifying campaign, the Italians easily won Group C with 26 points and an 8-2-0 record. The Azzurri were 5-0 when playing at home, and conceded just two goals in their 10 games against 20 scored.
Players to Watch
USA: Sacha Kljestan – It’s Christmas come early for fans who were clamoring to see the Anderlecht man back in a US kit. Now Kljestan needs to prove to Klinsmann that he deserves a call-up, injuries or no, in his next camp.
ITA: Alessandro Matri – The Juventus striker has already bagged 10 goals for the Old Lady this season. With Rossi and Antonio Cassano still doubtful for Euro 2012, now is as good a time as any for Matri to convince Prandelli he's ready to fill the gap.
GOALKEEPERS (3): Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Tim Howard (Everton), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS (6): Carlos Bocanegra (Rangers), Geoff Cameron (Houston Dynamo), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover 96), Clarence Goodson (Brøndby), Michael Parkhurst (FC Nordsjaelland), Jonathan Spector (Birmingham City)
MIDFIELDERS (5): Michael Bradley (Chievo Verona), Maurice Edu (Rangers), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht), Danny Williams (Hoffenheim)
FORWARDS (5): Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar), Terrence Boyd (Borussia Dortmund), Edson Buddle (LA Galaxy), Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Brek Shea (FC Dallas)
GOALKEEPERS (4): Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Morgan De Sanctis (Napoli), Salvatore Sirigu (Paris-St. Germain), Emiliano Viviano (Palermo)
DEFENDERS (9): Ignazio Abate (AC Milan), Davide Astori (Cagliari), Federico Balzaretti (Palermo), Andrea Barzagli (Juventus), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Domenico Criscito (Zenit St. Petersburg), Christian Maggio (Napoli), Angelo Obienza Ogbonna (Torino)
MIDFIELDERS (6): Daniele De Rossi (AS Roma), Claudio Marchisio (Juventus), Riccardo Montolivo (Fiorentina), Thiago Motta (Paris-St. Germain), Antonio Nocerino (AC Milan), Andrea Pirlo (Juventus)
FORWARDS (4): Fabio Borini (AS Roma), Sebastian Giovinco (Parma), Alessandro Matri (Juventus), Giampaolo Pazzini (Internazionale).