Exclusive talk w/ AS Roma’s GM, CEO; Goal is to be “best in the world”

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It’s a good time to be among i Lupi.

AS Roma is back into the UEFA Champions League with ambitions to climb to its pinnacle, with the club’s on- and off-field affairs in order under president James Pallotta, an American.

PST had the chance to talk with AS Roma’s direttore generale, Mauro Baldissoni, as well as its CEO, Italo Zanzi, on the club’s recent tour of the United States. We chatted about the club’s aim to be the world champion, the challenges in restoring its lofty stature in Italy and the status of the American game and market.

And while Roma’s lone trip to the Cup final was 1984’s loss to Liverpool in penalty kicks and the world has watched as major money has bankrolled more European title competitors than ever before, neither Zanzi nor Baldissoni played it safe in the club’s ambitions.

“The goal is to be the best in the world,” Zanzi said.

The club is backing up its words despite a multi-year absence from European competition. Roma has spent wisely to propel Rudi Garcia’s unit forward while getting its business affairs in order.

And now Roma is among three Pot IV clubs no European giant wants to see in next year’s group stage.

“Apart from the last three seasons, Roma was consistently playing Champions League,” Baldissoni said. “We think that Roma must be a Champions League team. We’ve been successful in taking the club back to the top of the championship in Italy and we think that we’ll be able to compete at the European level.

“The US ownership group took over the club in, let’s say ‘not bright financial shape.’ We are trying to complete the turnaround while investing in new players and new talents. Due to the skill and value of the management team, we think that we’ve completed the mission to remain a Champions League team.”

Zanzi stressed the club’s acumen in spending wisely.

“We’re very fortunate but also savvy to have what we consider to be the best football management team that has demonstrated its ability to find special talent at terms that make sense,” he said.

All this from an American ownership group with Pallotta that caused some consternation in Italy. Could outsiders respectfully run this club? Zanzi admits that, as an American, they had to be extra sensitive.

“When you come into a new environment, a new country — particularly a city like Rome which is so storied — you have to be mindful to sensitivities,” Zanzi said. “What we found was definitely the most passionate fan base in the world who really just want to win. When you focus on the basics, winning on the field and off the field, it makes it easier to gain people’s confidence.

“We’re very mindful of always being respectful. We’ve never come in and said the American way is the best way or the Italian way is a bad way. On the contrary, we just want to be the best.”

And as a Roman, Baldissoni spoke of the concerns at the arrival of foreign administration.

“Actually being born and raised in Rome, a unique city with a story of thousands of years, of course there was some skepticism for the new owner coming from abroad,” Zanzi said. “It was to be expected and a natural reaction. It turned out to be a way to increase the expectations. Fortunately, we think we’ve met the expectation by now. We’re planning on doing better and better every day.”

So it brings them to America again. Roma has had a good relationship with Major League Soccer, playing the role of opposition in last year’s All-Star Game, and employed American superstar Michael Bradley for a long period of time.

In the case of the latter, Baldissoni admitted he had no thought to let Bradley leave Rome when the Toronto FC opportunity arose.

source: Getty Images“Michael was a great professional and also a wonderful football player,” he said. “We were not even planning to let him go. He wanted to be back in the United States. We were happy to keep him as a player.”

Zanzi was also sad to see him go, but it was a business move.

“Michael is a consummate professional and a player that any team or coach or ownership would want to have,” he said. “He had a very positive experience in Rome and we found a situation that worked out mutually in Toronto. Only positive things to say about Michael.”

And Zanzi also admits that the club would have no qualms taking on more Americans, but that the European rules make it very difficult. This troubles him a bit, as the success of his homeland is often on his mind.

“For me it’s very close to my heart,” he said. “The US on the whole continues to produce fantastic football players that are getting more experience sooner. It’s a shame that many teams in Europe have a limitation on the amount of non-European players that creates a challenge for American players. The ones that do come are successful, the represent their country well and they add value to their clubs.

“We look at the US as a growth market, not only from an economic perspective and a marketing perspective but also as a football one.”

With a stability in tow and a brand new stadium in the works, not to mention new partnerships with Disney and Nike, Roma is confident it can take its next steps to awakening its status as a European giant. The second-place club in Italy will lure better players to its home, threaten the existing holders and give Garcia what he needs to succeed domestically and abroad.

“Given all of the attention and hard work that we have put forward, and a very hard working style, we’re finding that players want to come to Roma now,” Zanzi said. “It’s an attractive place to be.”

Arena reacts to USMNT draw, expects CONCACAF fight to end

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Bruce Arena didn’t enjoy watching Tuesday’s 1-1 draw between the United States and Panama, but he’s not upset with the result.

“The referee didn’t blow his whistle too much, and that’s the way the game looked for 90 minutes,” Arena said.

[ MORE: Player ratings | 3 things ]

Arena’s Yanks struggled to find their flow in the draw, ravaged by injuries to their back line. Arena praised his back four for their performance in difficult circumstances on the road with new teammates.

And he’s feeling a lot better than a week ago, when the U.S. had zero points and sat last in the table.

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

“We’re obviously in better shape with four points in two games. We’ve made progress. Every game in qualifying is going to be critical for every team. Everyone’s in it. It’s going to be a battle for the second, third, and fourth spots.”

The Americans’ next World Cup qualifier is June 8 against Trinidad and Tobago before a June 11 road trip to Azteca to face Mexico.

Panama 1-1 USMNT: Ugly, scrappy point for both sides

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The United States will finish the international break in the Hex’s fourth place after a 1-1 draw at Panama in World Cup qualifying on Tuesday.

Clint Dempsey scored off a feed from Christian Pulisic to give the U.S. a brief 1-0 lead, and Gabriel Gomez leveled the score before halftime.

The Americans’ next World Cup qualifier is June 8 against Trinidad and Tobago before a June 11 road trip to Azteca to face Mexico.

[ MORE: Player ratings | 3 things ]

Here’s the Hex table as it stands, with the U.S. on pace for a playoff spot against Asia’s playoff winner:

Mexico — 10 points
Costa Rica — 7 points
Panama — 5 points
———————
USMNT — 4 points
———————-
Honduras — 4 points
Trinidad and Tobago — 3 points

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

The first 10 minutes were a bit frenetic, with the U.S. focused on adventurous first touch passes when it managed to earn the ball from Panama.

That feel wasn’t aided by the officiating, as Cesar Ramos was inconsistent in a very physical opening quarter-hour (and never pulled a single card).

Felipe Baloy flashed a header over the cross bar off a 16th minute corner kick as he lost Jozy Altidore and nodded back across goal. It was a bit of set piece foreshadowing, as Arena has yet to fix a long-held USMNT problem.

Christian Pulisic was fired up when Luis Tejada shoved him to the turf in the 20th minute.

Tim Ream bailed out Jorge Villafana, who wasn’t as composed and smart as his Friday versus Panama, sliding to divert Armando Cooper’s cross for a corner kick.

Jermaine Jones cued up Pulisic moments later, but the youngster had to wait for a bounding ball to settle before Panama conceded a corner. That opportunity was wasted by an overly aggressive Gonzalez, who was called for a foul before the ball arrived in the 18.

Howard saw his first danger and averted it when Alberto Quintero shook Zusi to rip a shot on frame. It was 0-0 after 32 minutes.

Then, the breakthrough. Dempsey moved to within a goal of Landon donovan’s all-time mark thanks to Pulisic, who cooked Felipe Baloy and held off Roman Torres before laying off to the veteran. 1-0, 39′.

The lead lasted all of three minutes, as Gomez pounced on a loose ball with the Yanks’ back line at sixes and sevens off a long throw-in. Gomez turned off Jermaine Jones and lost Villafana to bury his chance behind Howard. 1-1, 44′.

The second half began with more chunky play until Villafana blazed down the left wing on an overlapping run to cross for Pulisic, whose shot was forced out for a corner which led to nothing.

Dempsey then turned a Michael Bradley free kick to a waiting Jaime Penedo as the Yanks started to refind their flow.

Panama found a doorstep chance when Torres nodded down for Tejada, but Howard made an exceptional nether regions “leg” save to keep it 1-1.

Arena introduced Alejandro Bedoya for Darlington Nagbe with 20 minutes to play, a move that was a testament to the physical nature of the game.

Fittingly, it was creative work from Pulisic that helped the U.S. win a corner kick soon after, though Penedo claimed the offering.

More chances came Panama’s way, as the U.S. spent much of the late stages desperately clearing loose balls. On another night, with better finishing from Tejada, the Yanks would’ve been sunk.

Three takeaways from the USMNT’s 1-1 draw at Panama

AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco
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What did we learn from the United States’ 1-1 draw in Panama City on Wednesday?

For one thing, that the coach isn’t going to matter without a number of your very best players.

[ MORE: Match recap | Player ratings ]

The USMNT saw precious few moments of brilliance from its injury-ravaged side, saved by its soon-to-be all-time leading scorer, its 18-year-old star attacker, and its legendary goalkeeper.

But mainly, we saw that you can change the boss, but you need better performances to make a difference.

Limits of depth tested in ugly affair

Bruce Arena was without his best center back pairing thanks to injury, and you could argue he was without his best back four if you see Fabian Johnson as a left back (John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, DeAndre Yedlin, and Johnson).

The U.S. also couldn’t pair Bobby Wood with Jozy Altidore or Clint Dempsey, and lost Sebastian Lletget to injury on Friday. Timmy Chandler has rarely thrived with the USMNT, but it certainly would’ve been nice if Arena had called him up for the second match alone (He was suspended Friday for yellow card accumulation).

Given the above, this was not a pretty match. You just have to hope this isn’t the result that keeps them from Russia.

Mexico, revisited (What game plan?)

This might be an unpopular take, but Tuesday’s loss was nothing more than the performance put forth against Mexico in Columbus.

The main differences? Tim Howard was there to make a tremendous save, and Panama is nowhere near to the level of El Tri.

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

The Yanks didn’t have a great plan other than to outwork Panama. This isn’t a big knock on the coach’s tactics given the lack of starting caliber players noted above, but once Panama flooded the middle of the pitch with fouls and tight tackles, an answer wasn’t provided by the players or the coach.

Plan B hasn’t been a U.S. strong suit for a long time, perhaps back to the finer moments of the Bob Bradley era. Arena got away with one on Tuesday.

Rough road ahead

This is something we know, but my was it reinforced: Winning CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers at home is a necessity, because there’s carnage and bad pitches on the road.

Perhaps that could’ve changed if referee Cesar Ramos brought a yellow card out for either team at any point in the proceedings. Christian Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe were fouled as part of Panama’s game plan, and the Yanks’ beleaguered defense went with a similar plan as the sloppy match wore into the waning moments.

The U.S. is still in control of its own World Cup destiny, of course, but simply must handle its business in remaining home matches against Trinidad and Tobago, Panama, and Costa Rica. T&T is next, and anything other than three points sends them into Azteca in a bad, bad way.

Player ratings from the USMNT’s 1-1 draw in Panama

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Player ratings reverted to old form after Tuesday’s 1-1 draw in Panama City, though fortunately one of the other U.S. tropes is dead.

That’s because “Christian Pulisic is the future” can officially be moved into “Christian Pulisic is the present”.

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things ]

The Borussia Dortmund teenager again manufactured the United States’ best moment, feeding Clint Dempsey for the Yanks’ lone goal.

Starting XI

Tim Howard  — 7 — Don’t know what he’s supposed to do on the goal, but his jewels save to deny Luis Tejada could be a World Cup saver.

Jorge Villafana  — 4 — One of the many star men from the win over Honduras was too adventurous and less composed. Bad combo.

Omar Gonzalez  — 4 — I say this in a way that ignores Timmy Chandler’s fine work in the Bundesliga: Is Gonzalez going to be Bruce Arena’s Chandler? Hopefully this is the last time he has to start.

Tim Ream — 5 — Had a bad time on the goal, and made several bad plays. But it’s hard to get a read on the Fulham’s man night because he bailed out Gonzalez and Villafana on a number of occasions.

Graham Zusi  — 5 — Gets bumped up a point for handling a very difficult situation, still adapting to right back in a match where Panama’s tactics were to attack his side. A better second half than the first.

Michael Bradley  — 6 — Nothing exceptional from the captain, but still an upgrade from his form under Jurgen Klinsmann. A little too deep in the formation on the evening, but that could’ve been the plan?

Jermaine Jones  (Off 75′) — 5 — Ornery as usual, his only successes came in standing up for his oft-fouled midfield mates.

Darlington Nagbe  (Off 68′) — 6  — This game looked set up for him to pick the ball up from Michael Bradley and dance into the midfield, but he only got a few chances as Panama’s tactics were aimed at fouling the Yanks’ two best dribblers in him and Pulisic.

Christian Pulisic  — 9 — A simply incredible bit of work to work two veteran defenders and assist Dempsey’s goal. Failing an unforeseen dip in company, Pulisic is going to be one of the most important players in American men’s history.

Clint Dempsey  — 6 — Scored the goal that earned the point, but otherwise fought to be a part of the match. That’s the sign of a legend, though, still finding a way to make himself matter on a poor evening.

Jozy Altidore  — 5 — Might’ve had a dozen touches in the game. Part of this was down to the U.S. aiming balls at his head and not his feet, but not his day.

Subs

Alejandro Bedoya (On 68′)  — 6 — Dogged work rate from the Union man.

Kellyn Acosta (On 75′) — 6 — Some creativity on display in limited time

Paul Arriola (On 83′) — N/A —