Clemente Lisi takes us through what the US Men's Olympic team got right during their Thursday opener against Japan, while outlining what is needed as they prepare for Sunday's game two versus Holland.
By Clemente Lisi
NEW YORK, NY (Aug 8, 2008) USSoccerPlayers -- While the US Women’s team sits at the bottom of their group, the American men are atop theirs following a 1-0 victory over Japan.
The win was a heart-pounding, gut-wrenching performance put together by a US team that just wanted it more than the Japanese -- and it was the MLS-based players, not the ones who play in foreign leagues, who made it to happen.
The Americans went on a Cinderella run at the 2000 Sydney Games, but failed to qualify for Athens four years ago. During those eight years, the US has improved immensely at all age levels, and with it, MLS has blossomed into a league that not only nurtures and fosters American talent, it has even exported it to some of Europe’s big clubs.
The US win was as much about talent as it was about heart. There’s something about the Olympics – even for soccer players – that allows Americans to elevate their game. Against Japan on Thursday, the US had two heroes on the field that made the difference when it mattered most.
Living up to the Olympic ideal was midfielder Stuart Holden, who plays for the Houston Dynamo. He got the game-winner two minutes into the second half, shooting from point blank range off a poor Japanese clearance that goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa got a tiny piece of, but could only watch roll over the line. Holden’s spontaneity, hustle, and ability to pounce on a loose ball was a sign of the kind of hunger that turns draws into wins.
Holden may have been the goal-scoring hero, but it was defensive midfielder Maurice Edu who truly stole the show.
Edu, who plays for Toronto FC and has shined for Bob Bradley in his six appearances on the senior team since last year, hustled and cleared balls, allowing some insurance in the back thanks to his size when things had appeared unbalanced in the early going.
Japan, no pushovers at the youth level since they started churning out talented players a decade ago, were technically superior to the US, scratching out a few good scoring chances in the first half. With Jonathan Spector and Nathan Sturgis both ruled out by injury before the start of the game, coach Peter Nowak – who employed a 3-5-2 formation -- had no choice but turn to Edu to play in the heart of the defense to try and intimidate the Japanese attack.
Edu’s supporting cast on the flanks, Marvell Wynne and Michael Parkhurst, also contributed, gaining yardage in the midfield, winning one-on-one duels and aiding the midfield by pushing the ball forward the entire game. It was off a Wynne cross on the right flank where the play began that led to the US goal.
Following the goal, the game finally opened up and gave us a brief look at what the US attack should look like. The extra space in the middle of the field made it easier for Freddy Adu and Jozy Altidore – a second half sub for Brian McBride - to move the ball around and make some plays. As McBride would say following the game, the problem for the US in the first half was space. He was to far away from Adu to try to make the kind of connections the US needs to break down defenses.
The US was even able, with a little luck at times, to contain a late Japanese surge. A tougher opponent, say like group opponents Holland and Nigeria, may have capitalized, despite Edu and the US defense’s best efforts.
Although he had a relatively quiet game for his standards, McBride is vital to this team. McBride, who at 36 is the oldest player at the tournament, is the team’s leader and was given that responsibility when Nowak handed him the captain’s armband. He came out of retirement for a chance at a medal and has encouraged his younger teammates. He worked tirelessly against Japan to win balls and draw fouls all in an attempt to keep the attack alive. Given the heat and humidity that has enveloped China this summer, McBride’s contribution was more than admirable.
McBride, who has three World Cups to his name and recently returned to the Chicago Fire after four seasons with Fulham, had a relatively quiet 74 minutes (that’s when Altidore came in), but he’ll be key down the stretch if the US hopes to get to the knock-out phase.
Against Japan, the US did enough to turn a draw into a win. Against Holland, the U-21 European champions, the Americans need to considerably raise their game.
Clemente Lisi is the author of “A History of the World Cup: 1930-2006.”