SPORTS

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March 1, 2002

Should the U.S. adopt catenaccio?

OK, so the U.S. Men's National Team's 1-0 loss to Italy was disappointing. When the two teams played a friendly around two weeks ago, hopes were high that the U.S. could perhaps surprise an apathetic Italian side. In the first half, when Italian spectators were booing their home side and cheering for the Americans, prospects for victory actually looked decent.

Then, Italy actually decided to play some soccer, and the game reached its appropriate decision.

The Americans missed plenty of chances, and, although the U.S. defense looked quite good, Italy finally broke through in the end. Once again, following tradition dating from the 1990 World Cup in Italy, the U.S. continued its losing streak on Italian soil.

Certainly, U.S. head coach Bruce Arena can take away many positives from the match. Along with a strong defense, losing by just one goal to one of the top teams in the world is never a disgraceful act. Furthermore, the American offense did create chances, and they created chances against one of the most highly touted defenses around.

On the other side of things, the Americans' poor finishing led to their demise.

For around 50 years now, Italy has praised itself on its stonewall defense and its opportunistic offense. Italy perennially shuts off all options on defense, and then counters maybe once or twice a game. Sure, this method of play is boring, methodical, and laborious.

But it's incredibly effective.

Italy generally boasts all-star defenders, but, against teams like Holland or talented South American teams, Italy rarely can match the firepower of their high-flying opponents. Despite that fact, check out Italy's track record against all of these teams. Catenaccio works. Italy capitalizes on its chances, the players play well together, and they never overestimate their opponents.

Perhaps the U.S. could learn something from their Italian counterparts.

Right now, in a lot of ways, the American squad resembles a (substantially) lesser form of the Italian national team. The Americans have physical defenders like Jeff Agoos, tough, ball-possession oriented midfielders like Chris Armas, and then occasional players with some flair, like Landon Donovan and Claudio Reyna. Moreover, the U.S. has a big forward at the top of the attack — Brian McBride — and smaller players like Josh Wolff and Donovan often play through McBride. In this way, the U.S. attacking formation seems somewhat reminiscent of one of Italy's main scoring combinations: Alessandro Del Piero and the big, physical Christian Vieri.

Now, don't get me wrong, McBride is no Vieri. McBride wouldn't last a minute at Inter Milan, and his skills don't match up to the great Italian's abilities. Also, Donovan is no Del Piero, and Reyna and Armas can't hold a candle to Zanetti or Totti, but some rough similarities are present. The Americans have a big, consistent forward, some decently skilled midfielders, and a physical, confident back line.

All the components are there to play a more defensive style. Overall, I've always wondered about the U.S.' promise of "open, attacking, and attractive soccer." Sometimes, ugly soccer wins matches.

In the case of the Italians, ugly soccer often wins trophies, championships, and World Cups. Also, under-talented teams can often utilize defense and opportunistic play to overachieve. And right now, that's exactly what the U.S. team is — an under-talented team looking to overachieve at the World Cup.

Arena has the U.S. squad playing extremely well. There's no doubt about that. A 1-0 loss to Italy, winning the Gold Cup earlier this year, and a friendly schedule in the future will only improve the final product we'll see on the pitch this summer. An emphasis on defense, however, could benefit the U.S. come June.

So, will the U.S. switch over to a more defensive style in the upcoming months? Probably not. For some reason, U.S. soccer authorities always seem to equate defensive soccer with death. Without attractive play, numerous scoring opportunities, and offensive excitement, U.S. fans will supposedly lose interest and go back to watching televised high school basketball and lacrosse and all those other sports that are quickly eclipsing soccer in popularity in America.

This argument is partly true. American fans do want offense, they do want to see goals, and they do want to see some high-scoring matches. But above all that, beyond the bicycle kicks, the diving headers, and the sensational goals, Americans care about winning. Bottom line.

Results attract fans, not occasional goals. The Italians have achieved great results, while the Americans have languished in mediocrity for decades.

Maybe it's time to try something new.