Today in Beijing, the Men's Olympic National Team failed to qualify for the quarterfinals after looking like it had won the group in about the 92nd minute of the match against the Netherlands on Sunday. While the team was not widely expected to advance given the difficulty of the group (Netherlands and Nigeria generally being regarded as superior squads), the loss is still gut-wrenching at this point given how it all played out.
If the U.S. had come out in the first match against Japan and laid an egg, most people would have probably stopped watching and it would have been a relatively painless 3 and out. However, the team claimed a 1-0 victory and three points. That combined with a draw in the Nigeria - Netherlands match set the U.S. up for potential success in the group stage. However, the 1-0 final score belies the actual play of the match. The U.S. were lucky to escape with a victory as Japan had significantly more opportunities than the U.S. but failed to capitalize. Unfortunately, the squad's luck would slowly turn around over the next couple matches.
In the second match against a Dutch team that just finished repeating as the U-23 UEFA champions, widely regarded as one of the favorites for the tournament, the U.S. appeared outclassed at first. However, after settling in around the 30th minute, the U.S played some exceptional soccer. The back four finally seemed to gel and Freddy Adu was driving the ball forward with the exceptional skill that he has always flashed but consistently delivered. The decision to sub Altidore in for an under-performing Rogers was also an excellent decision that the U.S. capitalized on to take a 2-1 lead. Unfortunately, this is where their luck changed. In the 93rd minute, after an unfortunate foul just outside the box, the Dutch's Sibon brilliantly sent the free kick under the wall and into the goal to tie the match 2-2. It is truly unfortunate, because the U.S. outplayed one of the best U-23 squads in the world for about 60 minutes of the match. To make matters worse, with the match appearing to be in hand, both Adu and Michael Bradley picked up their 2nd yellow card in as many games and therefore would have to sit for the 3rd match. Things would only get worse from here, however.
That brings us to this morning in the U.S., bright and early. Up at 4 a.m. to watch the third match against a Nigerian squad, which was also without 2 players due to yellow. You can imagine my ire with less than 4 minutes into the match Michael Orozco picks up a red card and we're stuck playing 10 v. 11 for 90 minutes! Many people will complain that so early in a match, a weak elbow like that was not deserving of a red card, particularly given that the 2 players were somewhat tangled. However, I don't think this is that great of an argument. Was it a weak red? Probably. However, Orozco has got to know that you cannot throw an intentional elbow (which it clearly was) directly in front of the ref and expect to get away with it. Things like that are one of the focus points of FIFA to try and "clean up" the game. Throw in the fact that the U.S. historically does not get much benefit of the doubt on the international level and you just can't do that. The rest of the squad played valiantly, but it is extremely tough to play down a man for a full match. When Parkhurst made one of his relatively few defensive errors in 39th, Nigeria capitalized with a beautiful goal to take a 1-0 lead.
At that point it looked like the U.S. was done in their match. However, a draw in the Japan Argentina match would still send the U.S. on to the next round. Unfortunately, Argentina went up 1-0 on Japan and the U.S. were forced to go into all out attack. Nigeria, however, was able to mount a successful counter and make it 2-0 in the 80th. The U.S. finally got on the board with a PK after one of the dumbest goalie decisions I've ever seen when the Nigerian goalie came way out of goal and made a cleats up tackle inside the box. However, it was too little too late even though the U.S. did have a late header off the post that would have tied the match.
It was clear throughout the match that the U.S. missed Adu and Bradley in the midfield as Kljestan and Szetela (and later Feilhaber) never seemed to get it together. Even a man down, the lazy passes and several turnovers left the U.S. with even fewer opportunities than they should have. I'm also not sure I agree with with the substitution of Feilhaber for Altidore. We either needed additional help on the defensive line (Rogers was stuck playing woefully out of position) or additional ability to counter. Pulling out our best offensive threat for another midfielder didnt' seem to make much sense.
What's this mean for U.S. Soccer? To be honest, I'm not sure how much we can take away from the Olympics that we didn't already know. The U.S. continues to show flashes of having the ability to compete on a global level. However, they still seem unable to sustain the performance for long periods of time (multiple matches - or even full matches at times). Some of the drives by Adu in the match against the Dutch were pure beauty. However, against Japan, he constantly seemed frustrated and spent more time complaining than succesfully driving at goal. Altidore showed some real promise as a substitute (especially against the Dutch), but also seemed like he committed some needless fouls that slowed us down against Japan. It is hard to say much about him against the Dutch as the red card forced him to play out of position. If Adu, Bradley, and Altidore can continue to develop in Europe (where all 3 play professionally), then maybe the Men's National Team can really start to develop and compete internationally. However, I don't see much potential for anything better than making the round of 16 (and only that if we get a good draw) in 2010 unless the tream really starts to play more consistently.