When the top-ranked United States faces No. 11 Italy on Nov. 20 and Nov. 27 in a home-and-home playoff for the final spot in the 2011 Women's World Cup, it'll be competing against a fellow American in goal for Italy -- Los Angeles native Anna Picarelli.
When reached by phone in Los Angeles, Picarelli, who has dual citizenship because her father was born in Italy, said she's not focusing too much on the fact that she's playing against the U.S. "I'm trying not to let it become emotional because that probably obviously affects the way you play," she said. "I'm just kind of feeding off the excitement of playing such a good team. Other than that, it's just a great opportunity for an Italian team to finally get some international recognition."
Picarelli currently lives in Los Angeles and plays for Ajax America in the Women's Premier Soccer League. While she loved living and playing club soccer in Italy, she moved back to be closer to her family and her fiancÚ. She's hoping to play in Women's Professional Soccer next season.
Picarelli's biggest issue with the upcoming match against the U.S. is the location of the second leg of the playoff, Toyota Park, in Bridgeview, Ill. While she's not concerned about the expected cold weather, because Italy plays most if its games in similar temperatures, she would've preferred the game take place in her home state.
"I'm a little disappointed they didn't put the game at the Home Depot Center [in Carson, CA]. That was my first thought," Picarelli joked. "It's been like three years since they played at the Home Depot Center. They could've given us that one."
The U.S. is an unexpected opponent for Italy, who as the fifth place finisher out of Europe must face CONCACAF's third place team for the World Cup's final spot. Picarelli said she was surprised to hear that the U.S. had lost to Mexico to fall to third place in CONCACAF qualifying, but is excited about the upcoming match.
"It's not a team you would think would play out of the third place spot, just based on the history of that squad and all of their success," Picarelli said. "We're going to be on the big stage before we even get into the big tournament -- playing against the current No. 1 ranked team in the world."
Growing up, Picarelli said she always wanted to play for the U.S. women's national team, but when called into camp after finishing her collegiate career at Pepperdine in 2006, was told her size -- she's just 5-foot-four -- would prohibit her from making the squad. "Obviously, growing up in California, playing in the U.S., I always wanted to be a part of the U.S. national team," she said. "It was made very clear to me that it was not going to work out in the U.S."
Picarelli appreciated the honesty and moved on to play club soccer for Bardolino, near Verona in Italy, and eventually was called into the Italian national team in 2008. She was the starting goalkeeper for Italy's signature win in 2009, a shocking upset of England in the opening game of the 2009 European Championships. She's played every minute of all 14 of Italy's World Cup qualifying matches, collecting nine clean sheets and surrendering just eight goals along the way.
Italy lost just once in World Cup qualifying, 3-2 in the second leg of its playoff versus France, to fall to the losers' bracket. There, the team advanced past Ukraine and Switzerland to clinch the playoff spot.
Though Italy is the clear underdog to the U.S., they play a much different style game than the Americans. "We're no international power as the U.S. [is], but [we're a] very tactical, technical team," Picarelli said. "It's going to be two completely different styles of soccer from one end to the other. I can't give away too much. That would make it easy for them. They've got to do some of their own scouting."