U.S. Is a Man Down, a Point Short
Thursday, August 14, 2008
BEIJING, Aug. 13 -- An elbow flew, a Nigerian fell theatrically to the field and a red card flashed three minutes into Wednesday's critical match for the U.S. men's Olympic soccer team. Suddenly a game plan went in the trash. Suddenly a simple hope -- win or tie to move on to the quarterfinals of the Olympic tournament -- swelled into an enormous undertaking for the U.S. men, one that, in the end, proved much too big.
Consider that, as defender Michael Orozco trudged to the locker room with his head hanging, two fellow starters stared down at him from mezzanine seats. Forward Freddy Adu and midfielder Michael Bradley sat in polo shirts and pants, serving suspensions for yellow cards earned in the team's two previous games.
Now this? Eighty-seven minutes left to play against an aggressive, attacking Nigerian team with only 10 men? Under the circumstances, the 2-1 defeat that sent the U.S. team out of the Olympic Games had noble aspects. U.S. Coach Peter Nowak lauded his team for its furious late effort, comparing -- genuinely if quite overdramatically -- the near-comeback that included a penalty kick goal in the 88th minute from Sacha Kljestan to the performance of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team.
"My boys, they played so hard tonight," Nowak said. "For me, they won the gold medal in this game tonight."
Except they didn't, really. They sank from first place in their group with four points to third behind Nigeria (seven points) and the Netherlands (five), both of which advanced. The Netherlands beat Japan, 1-0, Wednesday.
There was no miracle for this team. Why, "the boys," as Nowak repeatedly calls this squad of under-23 players (with three allowable age exceptions), couldn't even snatch a sliver of luck. On Sunday, they were minutes away from clinching a berth in the quarterfinals when the Netherlands scored a tying goal, dashing everyone's hopes of an early celebration.
Wednesday left the U.S. team with the sort of post-tournament hangover that has haunted the U.S. men's soccer program for more than a decade.
"We were very close, three days ago, to put our stamp on international soccer," Nowak said.
The team improved from its showing in 2004, when it didn't even qualify for the Olympic tournament. But the young team that went to Sydney for the 2000 Summer Games managed a trip to the semifinals.
"We didn't see any good bounces or good fortune," team captain Brian McBride said. "The biggest thing we're going to learn is you can be on an incredible high and it can change around. That's a lesson, I think, nobody wants to feel."
The misfortune began early. Orozco and Nigerian Solomon Okoronkwo battled near the U.S. team's bench for control of the ball. As it skirted away and the two untangled, Orozco pushed Okoronkwo with his elbow. Okoronkwo went flying as if he had run into a speeding bicycle.
Referee Wolfgang Stark pulled the red card.