Thursday, August 14, 2008

ATH: US Team exits Olympics

Not Quite Enough
Clemente Lisi makes the case for luck in tournament play, with the United States' exit from the Olympics a prime example.
By Clemente Lisi

NEW YORK, NY (Aug 14, 2008) USSoccerPlayers -- The US Men’s team that was eliminated from the Beijing Olympics following a 2-1 loss to Nigeria might go down as the unluckiest American soccer team to ever play in an international tournament.

Needing only a tie Wednesday to advance to the quarterfinals, the US just couldn't get the job done at these Beijing Games. It wasn’t because they weren’t talented enough or skillful enough. Not to make an excuse, but it just wasn’t in the cards for this team.

A minute short against Holland, a crossbar against Nigeria, and the US exits early.

With 10 men for most of Wednesday’s decider, the team put on a valiant effort on the brink of elimination. Proving nothing else, the US has the skill and ability equal to that of the Dutch and Nigerians, countries with a tradition of youth systems.

Why did the US lose? Where do I start.

The team, arranged by coach Peter Nowak in a 4-4-2 formation, was playing without midfielders Michael Bradley and Freddy Adu, both suspended because of yellow card accumulation. It was evident from the outcome of the Nigeria game that these two players were pivotal for Nowak. Without them in the line-up, the Americans just couldn’t compete.

In the fourth minute, things got worse for the US when defender Michael Orozco was red carded for elbowing Solomon Okoronkwo in the chest while battling for a loose ball in the midfield. It appeared to be an innocuous enough tussle for the ball, but Orozco’s elbow was a red card offense because it was intentional.

With Orozco missing, the US was left with a gaping hole in the left back position. From that point on, the American defense just couldn't contain the Nigerian attack, particularly along the left flank. Okoronkwo’s dribbling and one-two passing in partnership with strikers Victor Obinna and Chinedu Obasi Ogbuke helped Nigeria create numerous scoring chances.

Nigeria was persistent and in the 39th minute Ogbuke received a pass at the edge of the US penalty area, beating out defenders Marvell Wynne and Michael Parkhurst, rushing to the end line before feeding Promise Isaac with a pinpoint pass that he easily slotted into the back of the goal.

At the break, Nowak made a bad decision, putting in midfielder Benny Feilhaber in place of striker Jozy Altidore. Although Altidore had done little in the first half, Nowak never gave him the chance to get to work alongside Brian McBride after he was forced to drop back to make up for Orozco’s absence. Altidore needed to play forward, after all, that’s what he is, not in a defense posture as a holding midfielder with his back to the goal.

Nigeria, in the meantime, did all the right things, going from a 3-5-2 formation to a 5-4-1 in a bid to defend the lead and use the counterattack to score. When Obinna put Nigeria up 2-0 in the 79th minute on a curling shot that beat Brad Guzan, it came as no surprise. The US just couldn't keep up anymore and were playing too defensively to score.

It wasn’t anything Guzan had done. The former Chivas USA goalkeeper was exceptional, making a handful of tough saves that I’m sure impressed his new club Aston Villa.

Nowak made two more substitutions, inserting Dax McCarthy for Danny Szetela and Charlie Davies for Stuart Holden. The changes appeared to jumpstart the US attack. With three minutes left to play, the Americans were awarded a penalty kick in the 88th minute when McBride chipped a ball to Maurice Edu who was taken down in the box. Sascha Kljestan converted to make it 2-1.

A minute later, a McCarthy free kick was headed off the bar by Davies. The last-gasp effort failed to go in by inches. I can’t think of a more unlucky finish for a team loaded with skill and talent.

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