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Sunday, August 10, 2008
Thoughts on U.S. vs. Netherlands

Round 2 of the Games is over for the U.S. men's soccer Olympic team, and here's what I think:

1. The U.S. men are desperately unlucky: With seconds left and the game deep in injury time, it looked as if the U.S. had pulled off the unthinkable (at least outside of these shores) and beaten the Dutch. A win would have guaranteed the U.S. a spot in the quarterfinals and also put it in prime position to win Group B and avoid Argentina in the next phase. However, Gerald Sibon's late free kick to tie the game at 2 means not only that the U.S. is not assured of qualification, but also that it might be eliminated. Assuming the Netherlands beats Japan, the U.S. will need to avoid a loss against Nigeria to advance. Adding to the misery is that both Freddy Adu and Michael Bradley will miss that game because of yellow card accumulation.

2. What I liked about the U.S. men against the Netherlands: Make no mistake, the U.S. was the better team in this game. In fact, after weathering early Dutch superiority in possession, the U.S. virtually dominated. (Part of that was because the U.S. was far better conditioned, as the Dutch team as a whole started to look gassed after 30 minutes.) Aside from Ryan Babel's opener, the Dutch failed to create many decent opportunities after their initial spell (although Hedwiges Maduro missed an open-goal sitter early in the second half after eluding Bradley at the far post).

The U.S., on the other hand, picked up steam and applied most of the heavy pressure. Adu made a couple of scintillating runs when he beat several Dutch defenders, and his first run seemed to give the U.S. a lift and a previously nonexistent confidence. Although Adu was guilty of overdoing his dribble on other occasions, there's no question he was the difference-maker in this game. Among his better moves was a beautiful slip pass that sent Sacha Kljestan breaking free for the all-important equalizer. His loss will be keenly felt in the match against Nigeria.

Other standout performers were Stuart Holden and Marvell Wynne. Wynne kept talented Dutch winger Royston Drenthe quiet for most of the game, denying him on a couple of one-on-ones and limiting his most dangerous moments to set-piece deliveries while also breaking dangerously down the right on offense. How telling was Wynne's defense? Drenthe switched to right wing for most of the second half to see if he could get more joy on that side. As for Holden, he was ineffective early when used on the left wing. But toward the end of the first half and throughout the second, he made his presence felt when he drifted into the middle of the field. Several timely tackles, nice distribution and a rasping shot that required a great save completed a solid outing. Jozy Altidore impressed again after coming on a sub. Coach Peter Nowak needs to get him on the field at all times, as he's clearly the U.S.' chief goal threat.

3. What I didn't like about the U.S.: I absolved Robbie Rogers against Japan because he made some penetrating runs down the left and showed promise, but it's probably time to bench him. Though he again proved threatening on several occasions against the Dutch, his end product was exceedingly poor yet again. There's no point in having a winger who can beat his man if he can't get a decent cross in. (England's Aaron Lennon is a prime example of this.)

Nowak's decision to start Holden on the left and Rogers on the right was a clear case of overthinking. Such strategic shifting can benefit a team such as Spain, which has interchangeable wide men in Andres Iniesta and David Silva who have the technical capability to play either side. But it certainly didn't help the U.S., because neither player looked comfortable with the switch. I also still prefer Maurice Edu in central midfield. As Edu showed against Japan, he looks excellent breaking up plays when the opposition runs at him outside the area, but his awareness and instincts for typical center back positioning is lacking in some respects (through no fault of his own because the position is new to him). On the first Dutch goal, Edu should have picked up his man in the box, but he instead left him wide open.

For all his positives, Holden was guilty of some mistakes, and his most obvious one was the needless foul on the edge of the area that led to the Dutch equalizer. He also was guilty of poor decision-making on a late two-on-one breakaway when he chose to go for glory instead of squaring to a wide-open Kljestan, who could have scored the game clincher. Bradley, for all his talent, continues to make bonehead errors. He had a generally solid game, but his late yellow for time-wasting on a U.S. free kick ruled him out for the critical game against Nigeria. Add the way he fell asleep when Maduro almost scored, and you have to wonder what he's thinking at times.

4. The U.S. women might not even medal: After watching the U.S. women narrowly beat Japan 1-0, I've revised my opinion of the team. Pia Sundhage's squad is in very real danger of quarterfinal elimination if it doesn't improve. Against Japan, the women again had trouble creating many clear-cut opportunities and continued to concede midfield possession. Had Japan had any decent finishers, the score line could have been less favorable. Also, without Abby Wambach's strength in the air, the U.S.' set pieces largely went to waste and rarely threatened -- something that's a huge problem given the reliance on them the past few years. This team continues to have problems scoring, controlling the ball and creating things out of midfield. I'll continue to reiterate it, but I think Aly Wagner has to be on the field and one of Shannon Boxx or Carli Lloyd needs to be benched in her favor (probably Boxx, given Lloyd's greater goal-scoring ability).