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….
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.