GENOA, Italy (AP) – From their historic meeting at Rome's Stadio Olimpico in the 1990 World Cup to the dramatic draw in Kaiserslautern, Germany during the 2006 World Cup, the United States has played some of its most memorable games against Italy. But one thing the Americans had never done is beat the Italians.
That changed on Wednesday. A US team missing several key players (including Landon Donovan) went to Italy and became the first visiting team to ever beat the Azzurri in Genoa. It was also the first time the US national team beat Italy.
The Americans had battled Italy this close before, but they always came away having to settle for moral victories. In 1990, a team made up of mostly college kids, took on a world powerhouse. That team - the first American World Cup team in 40 years - pushed the Italians to the brink on their own home soil, but had to settle for the pride of a 1-0 loss.
Sixteen years later in Germany, the United States were given little chance against an Italian side considered one of the World Cup favorites. Then they went a man down. Then two men down. Somehow, in one of the US national team's bravest performances, the Americans held on for a 1-1 tie, becoming the only team Italy did not beat on its way to the world title.
Today's national team displayed the same kind of heart, but this US team looked sharper - more capable of standing toe-to-toe with a world power. It wasn't always pretty, and Italy could have put the game away early were it not for Tim Howard's heroics. But the Americans didn't play like a team expecting to lose. They played like a team with a plan.
Jurgen Klinsmann deserves his share of credit for that. No, he didn't re-invent the wheel or transform the United States into some high-flying attacking squad like some thought he might. What he did was play to his team's strengths: a strong defensive core, committed team defending, and the capabilities of Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore.
If the formula sounds familiar, it's because it's the same recipe the United States used to defeat Spain in 2009. That day, the Americans rode strong goalkeeping (from Howard), a resolute defensive display (anchored by Michael Bradley in midfield), and goals from Altidore and Dempsey.
On Wednesday, several of the same players stepped up. Howard was his impenetrable self. Bradley dominated. Altidore was a bull up top, and Dempsey was the clinical finisher.
Where Klinsmann deserves credit is for not forcing some ill-fitting persona on the United States. He took Bradley and Maurice Edu, planted them in the middle of the field, and built a wall for Andrea Pirlo and Italy's attackers to climb. He then positioned Altidore as a lone forward, giving him the unenviable task of being a battering ram without much attacking support, freeing up Dempsey to roam the space in midfield behind Altidore, further squeezing the space Italy's playmakers had to work in.
Italy still nearly pulled off the victory. Pirlo was delivering laser-like passes, and Sebastian Giovinco proved too quick for the US defense. And once again, it was up to American players to step it up.
The back four worked the offside trap to perfection - no easy task, considering it was the first time the quartet had played together. As the defense worked to push the line higher, Bradley and Edu did their part to squeeze, pester, and harass Italy's playmakers.
All the Americans needed for their plan to work was a goal - something that wasn't going to come easy against in Italy. The United States had played in Italy three times before, losing each game by a combined score of 9-1. And that solitary goal? It came in the 1934 World Cup.
Dempsey snapped that drought with one turn of the hips and stroke of that deadly right leg, slotting home a perfect lay-off that came after Altidore's deft collection of a perfect Fabian Johnson cross. That dream sequence not only helped give the United States an improbable victory, but gave US fans a taste of what may be in store this summer, when Klinsmann's team begins World Cup qualifying.
That's still more than three months away, but after vanquishing Italy for the first time in history (and putting together the US team's first four-match winning streak since 2008), the US will be riding a wave of confidence all the way into May's friendlies and June's qualifiers.
Making history can have that kind of effect.
Three notes from Italy-USA Johnson a hit a left back Fabian Johnson dazzled at left back on Wednesday, contributing dangerous runs forward and providing steady defense, as he worked the United States offside trap well. As good as he was, however, he is still probably best suited to start as a left winger. When Tim Chandler and Steve Cherundolo are healthy, they are a solid fullback tandem, and the reality is there isn't another winger in the player pool who can bring what Johnson brings to the flank. That said, once Cherundolo is too old to be a regular starter, don't be surprised if we see a Johnson-Chandler fullback tandem for years to come.
Bradley isn't going anywhere Wednesday's match marked just the second time Michael Bradley had started under Jurgen Klinsmann. Just twice. That stat was made to look all the more absurd by Bradley's flat-out dominant performance in central midfield against Italy. His move to Serie A side Chievo has paid incredible dividends, as his sharpness and confidence is at an all-time high. The result may have been the most complete performance of his national team career. Bradley removed any doubts about whether he should be starting in central midfield when healthy.
Altidore still learning, but still the best option After a frustrating 45 minutes, Jozy Altidore didn't look like the answer as the lone striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation, but in the second half he showed all the qualities that have made him a lockdown starter. His strength, improved ability on the ball and underrated passing gave Italy problems, and his assist on Dempsey's goal was first class. He still has his stretches where he can get lost in a game, but there is no denying that Altidore needs to be on the field.