GENK, Belgium — As international fixtures go, having the U.S. men’s national team play Italy in the northeastern Belgian city of Genk certainly qualifies as a peculiarity, even in a sport rife with them.
Then again, it’s somewhat fitting that the U.S. is finishing off 2018 in such fashion. It has indeed been an odd year for the Americans.
As for why the Italian federation opted to play the game here, it was done in part due to the sizable community of Italian expatriates in the area, one that took root in the mid-20th century when Italians were among those brought into work in the area’s coal mines. The mines have long since shut down, but the Italians remained and are expected to number around 12,000 Tuesday night at the Luminus Arena.
The U.S. has spent much of 2018 trying to establish some roots of its own. The year will be remembered as one in which caretaker manager Dave Sarachan was in charge for the duration of the 11-game schedule, something few would have predicted back in January.
Along the way, Sarachan played 50 different players and gave 19 their international debut. There have been some decent results too, including a 1-1 draw last June against eventual World Cup champions France, as well as wins over Paraguay and Mexico, although it’s worth noting both of those teams fielded understrength sides.
Yet there have been downs as well. There were humbling defeats to the likes of Ireland, Brazil, Colombia and England that exposed the limitations of the U.S. attack. And while the likes of Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Josh Sargent have shown promise, there remains plenty of uncertainty over the overall direction of the program, a feeling that only the hiring of a permanent manager can begin to allay.
Sarachan has taken such peaks and valleys in stride, even as recent results like the one last Thursday against England have been sobering.
“It’s been a journey,” said Sarachan at his prematch news conference. “There have been a lot of ups and downs, and that is all really part of the process of just sort of measuring up and seeing where guys shake out as we move this thing along. I think that from each set of games, I feel there’s progress, even though sometimes the performance may be a little bit underwhelming at times as a collective or individually, but there’s still progress. You can still learn through success and failure and that’s what this last 12 months has been in my opinion both individually for players but also as a team.”
The hope of course is that such experiences will pay off down the road, even if they sting a bit. That was certainly the case against an England team comprised mostly of reserves. The process of applying those lessons is one with which this group is familiar.
“We know that there is a gap we need to fill and that we’re getting better each and every game,” said Adams. “It’s valuable experiences. We go out there, we look at the video, we get over it and we bounce back.”
But even the players understand that there are limits to how much accumulating experience can help. There is also a desire to see the newly gained knowledge pay off with a win.
“I think experience is important as long as you have somewhere to go with it,” said midfielder Wil Trapp. “The real test is what can we build off and really start to form something of substance in terms of challenging in these games and winning these games.”
Sarachan has promised that there will be “a number of changes to the lineup,” although he didn’t elaborate. McKennie has left camp with a hamstring injury, while Luca De La Torre and Kenny Saief returned to their clubs. Adams seems a certainty to start given that the U.S. looked better against England when he entered the game as a substitute. Beyond that, the extent of the alterations is to be determined, although Sargent has recovered sufficiently from an ankle injury to at least be available.
Beyond the lineup choices, the emphasis since the England game has been on bringing a better defensive effort on Tuesday in terms of awareness, organization and intensity. From the opening whistle, the U.S. was far too passive against the Three Lions. Even though Italy will likely take a different approach than England did, that doesn’t change the need for a solid defensive foundation.
“Even though tactically there will be issues, technically there will be breakdowns, what the U.S. has always been strong about is that level of pride and honor in competition,” said Trapp. “I think at times in that England game we lacked it. This will be a game where it will be a different lineup for Italy than the one they just played the other night, but they always bring that and we’ll have to match it.”
If they do, then it will provide a positive end to a long, strange year.