YA: Italian League Preview

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After an exhausting summer of nonstop regional and international tournaments, European domestic leagues are finally underway, returning a sense of regularity to the game-watching schedule.

As usual, the top two Italian leagues sit back and watch the rest of Europe kick-off before they begin their 38-game schedules. This year, it’s a well-deserved, and likely well-needed late start since the majority of the country is still trying to recover from the long celebrations after winning the European title in mid-July.

What is quite out of the ordinary is the steadily increasing American presence in the top two flights. After many years of Yanks being more of an occasional oddity in Serie A and B, the upcoming season figures to have no less than five American players seeing regular field time. If transfer rumors are to be believed, this number could even increase over the next two-plus weeks. However, for the sake of clarity, we’ll stick here to what is already signed and confirmed.

With that out of the way, what awaits this growing crop of Americans in the coming season? Let’s start at the top.

Weston McKennie is entering his second season at fabled Italian club Juventus, however in a vastly different situation than one year ago. For one, he’s had most of a pre-season to connect with his no-longer-new teammates, whereas at this time last year he was still staring down into the abyss, from the deck of the sinking ship known as Schalke. Now, any questions about whether and how he fits into a team of Juve’s caliber have already been answered. Furthermore, he was a key factor in leading the US national team to a fancy trophy during the summer, although several of his teammates might have also won a game or two in the summer’s tournaments.

Most importantly, he has a new coach to answer to, the legendary Massimiliano Allegri, who returned to the team after a one-year absence, tasked to bring them back from what was by their standards a disastrous 2020-21 campaign. Their fourth-place finish, only secured on the final day, was enough to return them to the Champions League. However, coming on the heels of nine consecutive league titles, this wasn’t enough to prevent the embarrassing replacement of one of the team’s greatest legends, Andrea Pirlo, with the very person whose legacy he was supposed to safeguard.

While it’s hard to draw any firm conclusions from what has been a fairly disjointed pre-season for McKennie and Juventus, the expectation is that the Texan won’t be an every-game locked-in starter, at least early in the season. In the final two tune-up games against fellow Champions League competitors Barcelona and Atalanta, Allegri has favored a central pairing of Aaron Ramsey and Rodrigo Bentancur, with Federico Bernardeschi also able to slot into a midfield trio. With McKennie already forced to sit out the coming league opener with a lingering yellow card suspension from last season, he won’t enter the season as the first choice.

This isn’t to say that McKennie won’t see the field or even start quite a few games. Between Serie A, the Champions League, the Coppa Italia, and the Supercoppa Italiana, Juve has a bare minimum of 46 competitive games before them, although that number is certain to push into the 50s. Like last season, where his 34 league appearances were roughly split between starts and substitutions (three of his five league goals were scored as a sub), he will see significant time in both a starting and late impact role for Allegri.

After a mid-season transfer from Dallas to A.S. Roma, Bryan Reynolds made several appearances for his new team down the stretch. As would be expected from a young, inexperienced, midseason arrival from Major League Soccer, it was clear he needed more time to consistently adjust to the new level he would have to face as a Roma player.

Andreas Solaro/AFP

Roma also chose to bring in new leadership after a disappointing seventh-place finish and took a masochistic leap of faith in hiring the proverbial watermelon in the toilet Jose Mourinho. The circus has arrived. For Reynolds, this likely has little effect, as there is little expectation that he will immediately be ready for a starting role under any coach. Mourinho has certainly had a fair number of looks at the young right-back from Texas and hasn’t given any indication that he will be ignored. Still, Reynolds is likely looking at a season where he will have to slowly grow into the team and use every chance he is provided, either from the bench or in the occasional spot-start, to demonstrate he is developing the consistent quality necessary to push for a starting role.

Surely, one of the more intriguing stories of the offseason, from the standpoint of YA fans, has been Venezia F.C.’s possibly-still-ongoing stockpiling of young American players in a bid to make the most of their triumphant return to Italy’s top flight after 19 years.

The American ownership dove into the MLS pipeline, bringing in the pair of Tanner Tessmann and Gianluca Busio from FC Dallas and Sporting Kansas City, respectively. As two of the most expensive acquisitions in club history, there is certainly the pressure to not only play but contribute to a successful campaign.

Freshly promoted teams, particularly those who came up through a playoff as an otherwise unfancied Cinderella story, can be enigmas in terms of tactics and player usage. For Tessmann and Busio, their arrival shortly before the start of the season has made their expected deployment by head coach Paolo Zanetti even more of a black box. That said, both young players will get their chances in the upcoming season, if not immediately on day one, then in the first few weeks then as the relentless march of heavyweight opponents continues.

Tessmann’s competitive debut already came as a central-midfield substitute in their eventual Coppa Italia win over Frosinone on penalties. This came after another short cameo in a recent warm-up against Groningen, where he slotted in for a defender. Busio did not suit up for the cup win, which is no surprise since he had joined the team only days before. It’s unlikely that either will be rushed into the starting lineup, considering both their newness to the team and to this level of play. Nevertheless, for both players, the decision by the league and the Italian Football Federation to continue allowing five substitutions per game will accelerate their chance to become acclimatized.

A league preview wouldn’t be complete without some bold predictions about which is going to lift the league trophy at the end of the season, and where we expect the collection of American players to fall after a grueling 38 games. In what might be a first in Italy, there is a good chance, if not expected, that the two will converge this season.

Namely, will legendary coach Massimiliano Allegri return The Old Lady Juventus return to their perch after one disappointing season, and lead them to claim the Scudetto for the 10th time in 11 years? Will Weston McKennie be the first-ever American to lift the Coppa Campioni d’Italia?

In short, yes.

Even with the bloated albatross of Christiano Ronaldo’s salary and his black-hole-like gravitational pull on team tactics and finances, Juve is in the best position to finish on top. The reasoning is simple: their immediate competition got worse, they did not.

All of the potential challengers around them in last season’s standings have lost irreplaceable players or suffered other kinds of setbacks. Reigning champions Inter Milan sold the irreplaceable Romelu Lukaku to Chelsea, and so far, has managed to do no better than acquiring the aging Edin Džeko as a replacement. AC Milan lost the once-in-a-generation keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma on a free transfer to PSG. This will cost them safety in the goal, points in the table, and a shot at the title. Atalanta Bergamo, who has shown enough magic in recent years to deserve a place in the conversation(*), has to replace the leagues’ best defender of last season, Cristian Romero, who was sent to Tottenham along with their preferred starting keeper Pierluigi Gollini. They can’t win every game with a 5-4 scoreline. Roma will be handicapped by the addition of Jose Mourinho, who will surely bring the drama and intrigue, but won’t be able to prevent his own personal streak without a league title from reaching 10 years. Napoli and Lazio are hardly worth mentioning in the context of a title race, so I won’t waste any more finger movements on those.

In contrast, the worst that can be said about Juventus is that they have gotten a year older. In the case of dinosaur center backs Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, this will come with some downgrade in play. Conversely, Federico Chiesa has another year of experience and the confidence of winning a major international trophy under his belt and can be expected to terrorize opponents even more than the last season. The case could be made that Christiano Ronaldo’s dominant presence keeps the team at a slight overall imbalance, however, even at 36, he can still win games on his own. Most importantly, Massimiliano Allegri is a huge step up on the sideline from club legend Andrea Pirlo, and his addition alone is enough to bring the team back to the top.

Roma will still compete for a spot in Europe and should see some improvement in Mourinho’s first season. A spot in the Europa League is in the cards, maybe even a run for the Champions League spots, if they can avoid untimely implosions. How large of a role Reynolds plays in all of it is largely up to him, although a lengthy run by the team in the Coppa Italia and/or the newly-minted Europa Conference League will help.

Venezia and its (so far) two Yanks are in for a rough time. The team is certainly favored for an immediate drop to Serie B. However, relegation scraps can bring intrigue and surprises, so they cannot be discounted until it’s a mathematical certainty. Without any doubt, Tessmann, Busio, and the rest of their teammates are in the position to become legends should they be factors in helping the team survive.

Finally, we would be remiss to completely ignore Italy’s second tier, Serie B, where Andrija Novakovich has carved out a solid role with Frosinone Calcio. The team, which has bounced between the top two leagues in recent years, finished a disappointing tenth in 2020-21. Novakovich was a valuable contributor when he was on the field, scoring 11 times and setting up another six across 33 games.

Antonello Sammarco/Image Sport

Sadly, he has missed the team’s entire offseason program after undergoing surgery stateside in June, and will almost certainly be out for the first few games of the season. That said, the season is a grueling 38 games long, so he will have plenty of time to get back on the field and regain his momentum.

(*) As somebody who wakes up every morning next to a Bergamo-born, lifelong, militant Atalantina, the author admits some survival-driven bias when writing about Atalanta’s performance. Predicting anything other than glorious victory comes with huge risks to life and limb, so this article might very well be the first and last bit of YA’s coverage on Serie A.


David Smith

I'm YA's resident doctor, but not the kind of doctor you would want giving you an examination anywhere outside of a lecture hall. I've been YA's feet-on-the-ground in Germany since 2008, have an affinity for overly verbose descriptions of irrelevant minutiae, keep an eye on YAs in most of the destinations on mainland Europe, and watch a whole lot of Serie A.

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