Even Rome Got Built Faster Than This…

This is a guest post by our newly crowned Serie A expert Eric Giardini.

And thus concludes another transfer window with the tally of Americans newly introduced to Serie A clubs again…zero….

Thumbs up for....Frankfurt...not Livorno...

Over the past few decades, the number of Americans playing overseas in Europe has grown substantially.

The development of MLS and the opportunity for homegrown players to expand their game, coupled with recent individual performances in international tournaments, have brought more attention to American players than ever before.

Americans can now be seen in four of the biggest European leagues:  Tim Howard, Stuart Holden, Clint Dempsey, and now Michael Bradley in England; Steve Cherundolo and Ricardo Clarkin Germany; Jozy Altidore in Spain; and Carlos Bocanegra in France – and these are just a few.

Additionally, Americans have made impacts in “smaller” European leagues – namely Maurice Edu becoming something of a cult hero in Glasgow with Rangers and DeMarcus Beasley having enjoyed great success in the Netherlands with PSV.

This doesn’t include the numerous Americans playing in Scandinavia or the lower leagues across Europe. With the growing success of Americans abroad, the question remains why has there not been the same success in Serie A? Although there have been Americans linked to Italian clubs, most recently Landon Donovan and Ricardo to a newly-promoted Livorno side in 2009, these rumors do not come to fruition. With Americans enjoying success around much of the European continent, what is it about Italy that makes it so difficult for Americans to break through?

In short, I think it comes down to a combination of culture and the tactical nature of Serie A.

The Italian culture differs a great deal from the rest of Europe, to which Americans are more easily able to relate.  You may say, “Well, France and Spain are just as different from America as Italy is and Americans play there.”  You have a point, BUT we are exposed to the cultures and languages of Spain and France from a young age.  Growing up, many of us were told we had to choose between learning French or Spanish (or maybe German) in school, but how many of you had the option to take Italian?  It just isn’t something in the mainstream American consciousness – despite what MTV and New Jersey stereotypes lead us to believe.  This leads to a difficulty adapting to life in Italy off the pitch.

Second, the tactics used in Serie A differ a great deal from other leagues in Europe and from the style of play that the USMNT has adopted under Bob Bradley.  This leads to a steep learning curve for Americans relative to the other leagues.

Lalas...

Alexi Lalas was the first American to play in Serie A in the modern era when he joined Padova in 1994 on the back of a strong World Cup performance here in the United States. What should have been the beginning of an American influx to the league never materialized. Since Alexi first brought that perfect head of hair to the league, only four other Americans have made stops in Italy. Four. Giuseppe Rossi (yes, I’m counting him, let’s all collectively move past it), Vincenzo Bernardo, Gabriel Ferrari, and, most recently, Oguchi Onyweu.

Notice anything similar about three of these four names?  Rossi, Bernardo, and Ferrari all have at least one Italian parent, Italian citizenship, and were firmly entrenched in the Italian culture before embarking on their pro career abroad. The learning curve and having to adapt to Italy was not there. These players were already familiar with the language, food, and customs that would take others time to become accustomed.

Could he navigate Serie A?

Not to pick on anyone, but Clint Dempsey from Nacogdoches, Texas, for instance, I feel would have a more difficult time adapting to Italy based on these factors. England, on the other hand, was a perfect fit for him. Clarence Seedorf, when asked last summer about the lack of Americans in Italy, responded that other European nations provide a certain level of comfort to Americans, specifically in terms of language.

It should be noted that this is not solely limited to Americans in Italy. If you look at the other leagues around Europe, there are very few Italians abroad so the culture shock appears to go both ways.

Of the four Americans mentioned above, none are currently in Italy. Rossi is excelling at Villarreal after beginning in Parma. Bernardo, a member of the U-20 USMNT, was with Napoli but is now at a “third division Austrian club” after his contract with Serie D’s Nola Calcio was terminated due to financial difficulties at the club. Ferrari, another U-20 USMNT (but unclear if still a member of the program), played with Sampdoria but his last known whereabouts is with FC Wohlen (where he was recently dismissed) in Switzerland (another country with Italian being a dominant language). Onyewu, as we all know, is on loan to FC Twente from AC Milan.

Tactically, Serie A differs from the other European leagues in its overall style of play. For years, Catenaccio was the preferred style of play across the country. Meaning “bolt” or “lock” in Italian, it is used to describe the sitting back in defense and waiting to counterattack if possible (also known as “parking the bus” today). This gained acceptance because it was considered easier than attacking and it was thought that less skill and energy was involved in sitting back in defense than pushing forward. Thankfully Catenaccio is no longer the norm in Italy, but Italians are still widely regarded for their defensive prowess and slow, tactical buildup.

Few other leagues compare to this style and it is widely acknowledged throughout Europe. In fact, tactics, and the thinking of tactics, is held in the highest esteem in Italy as opposed to other countries across Europe. In his book The Italian Job, Gianluca Vialli chronicles his time in both Italy and England as a player and a manager and compares the two footballing cultures with examples from his own experience as well as insights from other top names in the game (Arsène Wenger, José Mourinho, and Sir Alex Ferguson to name a few).

Vialli states that Italians are “encouraged to think critically, we have a clearer view of the ‘big picture’, which, among other things, makes us far more receptive to ideas on tactics and formations. In Italy, footballers revel in tactical talk but in England it’s greeted with the same enthusiasm as a trip to the dentist.”

Platt for Manchester City...

David Platt, the current first team coach at Manchester City, and former player and manager in both England and Italy, backs up Vialli’s claims. He says that the English attention span for tactics lasts “about twenty minutes [then] I realize that I’ve lost them, their eyes glaze over, you can tell they’re thinking of something else.” This is different than his experience managing in Italy where if a player “hasn’t prepared tactically, he doesn’t feel prepared on the pitch. And that scares him and makes him very uncomfortable because for the Italian players football is first and foremost a job. The game aspect of it is a distant second.”

How does this all affect Americans and their overseas moves? In my opinion, and one that seems to be shared by many other USMNT supporters, Bob Bradley will never be mistaken for José Mourinho when it comes to tactics. I also do not think we’ll be seeing any MLS games on zonalmarking.net in the foreseeable future. So when it comes down to that big European move abroad, is an American going to go to a league where he doesn’t know the language, the customs, and where tactics are drilled ad nauseam into players?  Or to a league where the language is familiar (or at least similar) and where training is more “fun and games”? I know which I would choose.

However, the non-existence of Americans in Italy does not have to remain the status quo. There are Americans who I feel could thrive in Italy if given the chance, and in turn this would serve to help the USMNT as a whole. The three that come to mind almost immediately are Stuart Holden, Jozy Altidore, and Michael Bradley.

Boltin' Stu Holden...

Let’s start with Holden. His play so far in his time at Bolton can go down as a huge success. His ability to keep possession of the ball under pressure while being an excellent distributor of the ball and being the “quarterback” of the midfield mirrors the traits that have made Andrea Pirlo a fixture for both AC Milan and the Azzurri for a number of years. I am not saying that Holden is the next Pirlo, but I think their skill sets are very similar. Holden also has the awareness not to force passes into situations that are not there and has the patience to hold on to the ball and reset the play similar to a point guard in basketball. We have also seen a chippy side to him which is needed in Italy where midfielders are needed to track back and make tackles as needed. They both can also unleash a wicked shot if needed.

Jozy is a unique situation. He has the strength to be able to hold his own with Italian center backs, with the ability to shrug off defenders. Although he has the ability to create his own shot, he is much better suited as a target man, in a similar vein as Diego Milito at Inter Milan.

Unfortunately, he is not being used this way at Villarreal as he is mostly out on the wing in a Samuel Eto’o role that does not suit his abilities. With Jozy regularly playing in this role, it should help him better fit the role that Bob Bradley seems to be trying to use him by pairing him with a speedy, second forward (Buddle, Findley, Bunbury, Agudelo, etc.). A great number of Italian clubs play with this pairing so the extra experience would be beneficial. Right off the bat, Sampdoria looks like a club that could use a striker in this vein as they lost their two talented attackers and are working with a makeshift front line. Alas, Jozy is gave a wave on the flyover….on his way to Turkey.

Bradley...moving west, not south...

Michael Bradley’s game is well-suited for any league. He is a box-to-box midfielder with the ability to make a strong tackle and score – similar to Daniele De Rossi at Roma (however, unlike some of us here, I am in no way in agreement that Bradley can or should replace De Rossi). A stint in Italy would help Bradley with his tactical awareness. As we’ve seen, he can be caught out of position in his defensive responsibilities. With the emphasis on tactics and positioning that is a staple of Serie A soccer, this can only help Bradley and carry over to his play on the National Team.

I hope that the success that Americans are enjoying in the northern part of Europe opens the eyes of clubs on the Italian peninsula and more players are given an opportunity to make an impact in Serie A. I have a feeling that someone will have a great World Cup in Brazil and catch on in Italy, if for no other reason than for an Italian club to make more in roads in America and sell a few shirts. I just hope that we do not have to wait that long to see it happen.

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24 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Ryan R on 2011/02/02 at 12:09 AM

    Nice timing. I was just saying today how I wish Bradley moved to Serie A for a lot of the same reasons Eric stated. He’s good enough and his skill set fits so he’d actually see some of the field, but he could use the improvement in tactics that he would get there.

    Reply

  2. Posted by John Henry on 2011/02/02 at 7:39 AM

    Not so sure of the reasoning behind this piece. A couple of counterexamples pop into mind immediately, like that last year’s Inter Milan was made entirely of foreigners, and the other Milan team usually has a bunch of foreigners, as they do. I can’t tell if you’re arguing it’s just an American thing, or it’s an Italian thing. Or maybe it’s an Anglo-Saxon-American thing…

    I’d like to see some actual statistics and see whether this is something that is actually statistically significant (as in: are there fewer Americans in Italy than Mexicans? Or another similarly-ranked, non-Euro soccer country?) I doubt the premise, I guess, that there is an unusual dearth of Americans in Italy. But even if there were, I’d bet it has more to do with financial and roster regulations and passport issues than anything else, and that Italian football is currently at a low point, so who would want to go there anyway?

    Reply

    • Posted by EFG on 2011/02/02 at 11:59 AM

      Inter has a large number South Americans who have had a foothold in Italian soccer since the 1920s with the “Oriundi” movement (for lack of a better word). I’m not disputing that there is a large number of foreign players playing in Italy but it seems a majority of them come from South America. Now whether it is a result of the sheer number of players that countries like Brazil and Argentina are able to produce or if it has to do with the large population that emigrated from Italy is up for study/debate.

      Reply

  3. Posted by Mike on 2011/02/02 at 9:08 AM

    Great article as I have been wondering about this issue for some time. But cant La Liga be grouped in the same way? Altidore came into Villareal and has never established a true niche on the team and I cant truly think of anyone else who played in the Spanish league.

    Reply

  4. Posted by alexalex on 2011/02/02 at 9:11 AM

    I am at work so I can’t give a detailed response to this (I’ll try after), but don’t forget that Serie A has tighter citizenship issues than most European leagues which prevents Americans, who usually don’t have EU or Italian citizenship from playing in the league. These stricter rules were passed in efforts to groom younger Italian players, but most big teams find loopholes.

    Reply

  5. Posted by SamT on 2011/02/02 at 9:21 AM

    Dempsey is going to transfer to Serie A at some point in his career just to spite you.

    Reply

  6. Posted by mj on 2011/02/02 at 9:30 AM

    Like the blog and you make a lot of good points. It does appear that Americans have a tough time settling into the Italian game…and it is mostly down to what Vialli mentioned in that tactics are not a big part of our soccer culture…we are speed and skill where as the Italians are more methodical about their play. @Mike I agree that Spain could be in this category as well. Great read

    Reply

  7. Posted by over there on 2011/02/02 at 9:33 AM

    No Italian in school? Depends where you grew up. German sure as hell wasn’t an option for me. Culture shock? Yes, maybe if you are from Iowa, Germany would be far less of a culture shock than Italy, but not for many Americans from the Northeast. And I can confirm that at least one US international, Michael Parkhurst, went to a high school with Italian on the language curriculum. Sorry, to not fit in your box.

    Reply

    • Posted by matthewsf on 2011/02/02 at 10:06 AM

      I think you almost prove the author’s point here. Italian is hardly taught in school. There were four Spanish classes of the same level in my high school. Three French ones and one Italian one sparely attempted. Sample size of one, but similarly to your comment. I grew up in the Northeast.

      Reply

      • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/02/02 at 10:28 AM

        I think the whole moving to another culture is often overlooked. Look how Donovan ‘failed’ in Germany, but ‘succeeded’ in England. Sure, he was much younger, but I am also positive that speaking the same language helped a lot.

        The only question I have is: why would Americans find it harder to settle in Italy than other non-Latin nationalities?

        Reply

      • Italian wasn’t generally taught in the bay/most of california either. spanish/french/german.

        Reply

        • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/02/02 at 1:25 PM

          Please feel free to correct me, but don’t the Latin-based language have very similar verbs / adjective / nouns (so on) and sentence construction? All I remember at Uni was struggling at Spanish, where my French and Italian mates found it an absolute piece of p1ss.

          Reply

        • Posted by Seybold on 2011/02/02 at 8:56 PM

          Yes, there are similarities between the Latin-based languages. If you know Spanish, for example, you can quickly figure out/pick up a lot of Italian and Portuguese.

          Reply

  8. Posted by Ufficio on 2011/02/02 at 10:55 AM

    I’m also skeptical that culture is a big factor – or rather it’s soccer culture and not general cultural adaptation that’s important here.

    If the familiarity with the country’s culture and language acquired in American high schools is so important, wouldn’t we expect to see a larger American presence in Spain and France? Instead, Germany is by far the “big five” country other than England where Americans have found the most success. Our presence in La Liga is almost as poor as that in Serie A: Americans have scored a grand total of one La Liga goal to date.

    Besides, anyone who has a decent command of Spanish or French should have little problem picking up enough Italian to get by. Spanish is my second language, but I can watch a film or pick up a book in Italian, and get the basic idea despite never having studied the language.

    As for the food, Italy beats England going away, although if you want a hearty breakfast England is the place to go.

    Maybe Americans aren’t tactically sophisticated enough, or maybe the Italians unfairly perceive us that way. But what’s certain is we’re just not getting many looks in Serie A. How can we blame our supposed inability to adapt to Italy when almost no Americans are even getting a chance there?

    Hopefully if we can get a guy or two established there, it will have a snowball effect. At this point, enough Americans have had enough success in Germany that no German manager can afford to dismiss a player based on US nationality. As such, our players continue to get opportunities there. Maybe the same will be true of Italy some day.

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    • Posted by John on 2011/02/02 at 12:03 PM

      Not enough Americans wear shiny puffy coats.

      Once we get the shiny puffy coats we can then fit into Italian everyday society and THEN infiltrate Serie A.

      Reply

  9. Posted by Steve Trittschuh on 2011/02/02 at 7:58 PM

    I’d like to see a player like Larentowicz or McCarty playing in Serie A. Our midfielders are becoming world-class. I can see both of them now driving their mopeds to practice and unzipping their leather jackets. Ehhhhhhh . . .

    Reply

  10. Posted by Mud on 2011/02/03 at 8:48 AM

    I’m sure I’m gonna catch some “flack” for this but……

    wait for it………

    I’m glad our guys aren’t going to the Seria A to learn how to dive and roll around on the ground like they were just stabbed, shot, and sexually assualted all in the same 1/2 second by someone standing 4 feet away from them.

    Reply

    • Posted by Mud on 2011/02/03 at 8:52 AM

      Yeah…. and I mess up the spelling of the league. That’s how much they mean to me.

      Reply

  11. Posted by Martin on 2011/02/03 at 10:46 AM

    If you have no grasp of foreign languages most of Europe except Britain,Scandanavia and the Low countries will be a culture shock issue. Which is probably why there are so may American players there. Anyone with a grasp of Spanish will have a leg up with Italian. One reason why the other player you should have mentioned is Donovan.

    The main reason for the drought is it’s only recently we have had a number of players good enough to play in Serie A. Had Alexi Lalas been a standout player maybe he would have made enough of a splash to pave the way for other Americans but I recall him as mostly mediocre. So the sample size has been too small in recent years to say anything definite on this. Time will tell.

    Reply

  12. Posted by charlie on 2011/02/15 at 9:46 PM

    Italian is a dominant language in Switzerland? Right.

    Reply

    • Posted by Martin on 2011/02/18 at 12:26 PM

      No, it’s not.

      German (By a lot), French (about a third as much), Italian (very small in comparison to German) in that order.

      Reply

    • Posted by EFG on 2011/02/21 at 1:49 PM

      Maybe dominant wasn’t the right word, but it is an official language. I apologize for that.

      Reply

  13. [...] piece by Eric Beard which acknowledges Alexi’s time at Padova and the focus in training. And this piece, Eric Giardini, which discusses the challenges for Americans playing in Serie [...]

    Reply

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