The end result is satisfying to no one, but let it be written that on Saturday, June 17th, 2006, the United States fully joined the soccer-playing world. The Americans looked like a different team than the one that was soundly defeated by the Czech Republic Monday in taking the game to the Italians, overcoming a man disadvantage for almost the whole of the second half to earn their first point ever taken on European soil in World Cup play, 1-1. Until the Azzurri suddenly sprang to life with a vicious series of attacks in the last ten minutes, the Americans looked like a team completely in control. Landon Donovan and Steve Cherundolo were all over the pitch as the U.S. consistently were able to threaten down the right side of the field. Why Donovan, returned in this game to his natural role as an attacking midfielder, was ever envisioned as a striker by U.S. coach Bruce Arena is a question we can hold off on until Group E finishes play on Thursday. If Italy beats the Czechs and the U.S. defeats Ghana, the Americans live on into the second round, a result that was practically unimaginable after the ugly 3-0 loss to the Czech Republic.
Forget for a second that the United States hasn't actually scored a goal so far in the tournament. It was an own goal by Italy's Cristian Zaccardo that evened the game today after an Alberto Gilardino header gave Italy an early lead. The Americans came out appearing vastly more inspired and the Gilardino goal for however brief a time made it seem as if despite all their effort a repeat of the terrible final score against the Czechs was possible, if not worse. The next several minutes were symbolic of all the huge emotional swings to which a low-scoring game like soccer can subject its viewers. First, the own goal. Then, a red card for Italy, when clearly frustrated midfielder Daniele De Rossi opened up an impressive cut on Brian McBride's noggin with a blatant elbow to the face. In less than ten minutes circumstances went from the US's certain demise to a very favorable situation for a historic victory. Then things got really weird.
You know why America really counts as soccer-playing nation now? Not because we managed to tie the Italians. That's good, and even if things don't break the US's way and the game against Ghana on Thursday is their last of the World Cup, they've proven far more worthy of the ESPN/ABC hype machine's histrionics than this skeptic, for one, felt possible. No, we're in the club now because we have been on the receiving end of a royal screwing by a World Cup referee. It's a rite of passage. You have to be in the game in order to have it taken away from you by awful officiating, and you have to be playing somebody good for it to really count. Jorge Larrionda's straight red card on Pablo Mastroeni at the end of the first half was a ghastly call. Mastroeni maybe merited a yellow for his late sliding tackle on Andrea Pirlo. You could consider it a makeup call, and maybe a fair one. De Rossi's challenge on McBride looked less and less blatant with each replay. It might well have been the Fulham forward's talent for bleeding like a WWE superstar and not the severity of De Rossi's foul viewed in isolation that inspired Larrionda's application of the harshest possible penalty. So that's all well and good. One bad call is balanced by another, and the Americans and Italians go out and play the second half at equal strength, all tied up at one goal a side. Let the best team win.
That's not what happened, though. Larrionda inexplicably gave Eddie Pope a second yellow card seconds into the second half for a run-of-the-mill foul. If Pope didn't already have a yellow card, most referees wouldn't have given him one after the challenge in question. Ninety-nine officals out of a hundred wouldn't have given him the second yellow. It was an awful, stupid, game-changing call, and it changed forever my impression of Larrionda's home country, Uruguay. For many years the first thing I thought of in connection with Uruguay was that one funny "Simpsons" joke. Now, it'll be that one joke and that second red card.
The Americans, amazingly, managed to continue looking like the dominant side even playing nine-against-ten, until fatigue caught up with them late in the second half. Conveniently goalkeeper Kasey Keller, previously most famous for living in a big castle with a fully functioning moat, chose this time to have the stretch of his life. Keller repelled a string of very serious shot attempts from the Italians, who seemed to realize in only about the 80th minute that they would be required to score another goal in order to win the match. As ABC noted frequently during the second half, no World Cup team has ever scored a goal playing with nine men. The Americans came very close a few times, with sub DaMarcus Beasley actually finding the net at one point only to have the goal reversed on a (correct) offsides call.
After all the bad things I said about Team USA after their first game, I guess I owe them an apology. They played like real-deal contenders in this one, even when all the odds were stacked against them and all those good sports things. It'd be nice to see them score a goal against Ghana, and I doubt an only moral victory will have the galvanizing effect on the TV ratings Disney is hoping for, but at least the U.S. is no longer clawing against Togo and Costa Rica for the distinction of finishing dead last in the field of 32. The Americans will have a tough time against the game Ghanians, who dominated the Czechs earlier today in the upset of the World Cup so far. In particular, the loss of Mastroeni (automatic one-game suspension for receiving a red card) will hurt, as the midfielder was playing an essential defensive anchor role in Arena's reshuffled lineup allowing Donovan and Claudio Reyna to press forward. Given the stout play of Keller and the American defense in the game today, I'd assume even more of an attacking style for the Ghana game, but we shall see. Give Arena a lot of credit for circling the wagons after the psychologically bruising Czech Republic defeat. The Americans moved out of their local hotel to a US Air Force base in Germany earlier in the week. Perhaps being reassured of the U.S.'s military superiority in Europe helped the American players get over their lack of equal ascendancy in world soccer. Well, just wait.