U.S. ends 2018 and Dave Sarachan era with predictable defeat to Italy
GENK, Belgium -- The U.S. men's national team finished off 2018 with a 1-0 defeat against four-time World Cup champion Italy. In a match that Italy dominated from start to finish, U.S. goalkeeper Ethan Horvath stood tall, but Matteo Politano's goal in the fourth minute of second-half stoppage time proved to be the difference.
Here are three thoughts from the match.
1. Sarachan era ends with a disheartening, predictable defeat
Tuesday's match was almost certainly going to be the last in charge for caretaker manager Dave Sarachan. And as has been his habit, he fielded a youthful starting XI -- the youngest, in fact, in the modern era -- with an average age of 22 years, 71 days. All told, he made 10 changes from the team that fell 3-0 to England on Thursday. Christian Pulisic was the only holdover, and at 20 years, 63 days, he also became the youngest U.S. captain in that time frame, besting Landon Donovan's mark of 22 years, 220 days back in 2004.
Italy manager Roberto Mancini also fielded an experimental lineup, with six players having fewer than five caps, including Stefano Sensi, who was making his international debut.
Mindful of the timid defending against England, Sarachan set the U.S. out in a 5-3-2, with Pulisic partnered up top with Josh Sargent. What unfolded was a match that was in many ways similar to last June's 1-1 draw with France, which just so happened to be another time the U.S. employed this formation. The U.S. was content to defend deep and rely on stout defending and some sharp goalkeeping -- in this case, from Horvath -- to keep them in it.
The lack of familiarity with the formation was evident just three minutes in, when a simple long ball to Federico Chiesa gave him a clear look at goal, only for Horvath to save from close range.
The U.S. rarely kept the ball long enough to build any kind of sustained attack. Tyler Adams would occasionally break pressure by either dribbling or passing his way out of trouble, but the Americans' first-half pass-completion percentage of 66.7 largely told the tale. And on the rare occasions when Pulisic got into the open field, Italy was more then willing to engage in some tactical fouling to stifle any budding counter-attacks.
The only bit missing was a goal, and while the U.S. central defending trio of Aaron Long, Walker Zimmerman and Cameron Carter-Vickers had some vital interventions, it was the play of Horvath who kept the U.S. in the match, coming up with several sharp saves in the first half.
The second half started out with more of the same, as Horvath saved brilliantly with his left foot to deny Kevin Lasagna's breakaway attempt. The match then began to get more end-to-end, although Italy always looked more likely to score.
That said, the U.S. conjured up its best chance of the night in the 64th minute, when Salvatore Sirigu did well to deny Zimmerman's header.
The match soon returned to the Horvath show as he dove to his right to deny substitute Vincenzo Grifo's curling shot. But ultimately his efforts weren't enough. Some sharp passing through the U.S. defense put Politano in on goal, and he fired past Horvath with about a minute remaining.
Certainly, the U.S. worked hard on the night, but the result was totally deserved for Italy. The defeat marks a disappointing end to 2018 for the Americans, and there remains a ton of work to do for 2019.
2. Horvath an example for teammates to follow
Any young player wanting to get some insight into the ups and downs of playing in Europe could do worse than consult with Horvath. The Club Brugge keeper not only has had spells in and out of the lineup, but there have been moments where he was buried so deep on the Brugge bench that observers were left to wonder if he had any kind of future in Europe.
But to Horvath's credit he's stuck it out, and he's been rewarded of late with some impressive performances, including in the UEFA Champions League. That sharpness carried over into this match. In addition to his aforementioned close-range saves, he did well to tip over a Domenico Berardi shot in the 39th minute, as well as parry away a seeing-eye free kick that oftentimes can sneak in. Horvath then delivered his best save of the night on Lasagna's attempt in the 59th minute, holding his ground well to save with his left foot.
About the only downside to Horvath's performance is that it occurred in a position of relative strength for the U.S., as Zack Steffen and Brad Guzan are plenty capable in their own right.
3. Where does the U.S go from here?
The Sarachan era ends with a record of 3-5-4, and in the process he fulfilled the task handed to him by relying heavily on young players in a bid to kick-start the next cycle.
Yet there are still plenty of questions as the team heads into 2019, beyond the naming of the next manager. The biggest one of the lot is just who beyond Pulisic is going to step up and help lead this attack? Granted, the U.S. has been forced to plow through a withering lineup of opponents. It will not be going up against the likes of England and Brazil when the Gold Cup commences next summer -- and it will feature an older, more veteran lineup.
But the reality is that there isn't much in the way of refined talent in the U.S. squad at the moment. Beyond Pulisic, Adams and perhaps John Brooks, there are plenty of positions where the competition is wide open.
With the World Cup cycle beginning for real in January, that may not necessarily be a bad thing. But the U.S. pool isn't rife with players where you're saying, "There are a lot of guys who should be on the field." Instead there are a lot of what-ifs, and that progress will largely take place at club level, where plenty of Americans currently find themselves struggling for playing time.
The immense task of solving that puzzle will now be the responsibility of the next manager.