Takeaways from the USMNT's year-ending 1-0 loss to Italy

Yahoo Sports
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/players/613659/" data-ylk="slk:Christian Pulisic">Christian Pulisic</a>, 20, became the youngest captain in USMNT history in Tuesday’s year-ending 1-0 loss to Italy. (John Thys/AFP/Getty)
Christian Pulisic, 20, became the youngest captain in USMNT history in Tuesday’s year-ending 1-0 loss to Italy. (John Thys/AFP/Getty)

Christian Pulisic and an otherwise second-string United States men’s national team held four-time World Cup champion Italy scoreless for more than 90 minutes, but Matteo Politano scored deep into stoppage time to give the Azzurrri a 1-0 win in Tuesday’s international friendly in Genk, Belgium.

Here are three quick thoughts on the match:

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1. Horvath stands on his head, but U.S. gets dominated yet again

Like the U.S, the Azzurri is a team in full rebuild mode after missing out on the 2018 World Cup. But then Italy still boasts one of the most talented squads anywhere and, although they were also fielding a team on Tuesday that was chock-full of youngsters desperate to show they deserve to be mainstays for years to come, they posed a serious threat to an American side reeling after last week’s embarrassing loss to England.

In what is surely his last match in charge, interim U.S. coach Dave Sarachan made wholesale changes to the lineup he fielded in London, with Pulisic the lone holdover. But while the Americans came this close to stealing what on paper would have been an impressive result, the fact is they were lucky the score line wasn’t even more lopsided than it was at Wembley.

The stats tell the story. The Americans were out-possessed an astonishing 74 to 26 percent and out-shot 17-3 overall. They only managed one attempt on target, from defender Walker Zimmerman. Only 23-year-old goalkeeper Ethan Horvath, who made six saves in his third career start, kept the U.S. in the match, with stops like this one on Kevin Lasagna in the second half:

It was another reality check for a program that had put together some decent results, including a 1-1 draw at eventual World Cup champ France in June, despite its lack of experience. Those good vibes are long gone now, as the U.S. went winless over its final four games of 2018, losing three of those contests ands getting outscored 9-3 along the way.

2. Pulisic wears the armband, walks the walk

After missing most of the last year for his country, 20-year-old U.S. frontman Pulisic spoke last week about how he intended to take on more responsibility with the USMNT on and off the field. The next day, following that 3-0 loss in London to the Three Lions, a visibly frustrated Pulisic praised Sarachan while also lamenting the program’s obvious lack of direction with a permanent coach still not in place.

Sarachan responded by making the Borussia Dortmund attacker the youngest player ever to captain  the U.S. on Tuesday. And while Pulisic, who has been slowed by injuries this season, didn’t get on the scoresheet, his work rate helped set the tone for his overmatched teammates. That may seem like a small thing, but the competitive level that had been a hallmark of past U.S. teams went missing when it mattered most last cycle, and the veterans who remain from that squad are sorely lacking in the leadership department. To have Pulisic, whose own commitment to the national team has been called into question at times this year, show a willingness to back up his words with actions was a rare silver lining on another disappointing day for the U.S.

3. Future is now for USMNT

With Gregg Berhalter widely expected to be named as the new U.S. coach in the weeks to come, the program will finally be able to move forward. But Berhalter will have to hit the ground running when his first camp with the squad commences early next year. While 2018 marked the introduction of the next generation of U.S. players — during his 13 months at the helm, Sarachan gave 23 players their senior debut, almost twice as many as any previous U.S. coach over the same amount of games — there is little evidence to suggest that this group will be any more successful at the highest level than the teams that came before it.

The future is fast approaching for this version of the USMNT, whether they are ready or not. There is a CONCACAF Gold Cup next summer; the last time the Americans participated in the regional championship with a full-strength squad, under Jurgen Klinsmann in 2015, they finished behind Mexico, Jamaica and Panama. A good showing in that tournament will be essential for building confidence heading into World Cup qualifying, which is set to begin either late next year or early the following, especially after the disappointing end to 2018. Following a full year of transition for the U.S., there might still be as many questions as answers.

Doug McIntyrecovers soccer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter@ByDougMcIntyre.

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