(Tuesday, August 5, 2008) -- The United States men's Olympic team faces the stern challenge in China, facing three difficult Group B matches in seven days against teams from Japan, the Netherlands and Nigeria.
Based on the weak offensive effort they exhibited in two warm-up matches in Hong Kong, the team will have to improve by leaps and bounds if its is the get out of the group and into medal contention.
Olympic soccer on the men's side is age-limited in an agreement between soccer world governing body FIFA and the International Olympic Committee. Only three players on each team may be over age 23. The competition is a 16-team, four-group affair with the top two teams in each group advancing to the quarterfinals.
The U.S. opens Group B play against Japan Thursday at Tianjin Olympic Center Stadium at 5 a.m. ET (5 p.m. local time), a match televised by MSNBC. Next comes the Netherlands Sunday in Tianjin at 7:45 a.m. (ET) on USA Network. Group play comes to an end with Nigeria August 13 at Beijing Workers' Stadium at 5 a.m. (ET), also on USA Network.
Olympic Stadium is in Tianjin, population four million and about 70 miles from Beijing. Beijing's secondary Workers Stadium is an older 62,000-seat stadium, rebuilt for this competition.
If the U.S. warm-up for the competition is any indication, the team still has a considerable way to go if it is to compete to advance to the quarterfinals out of its group. In the ING Cup in Hong Kong, the U.S. drew its first match with the Ivory Coast 0-0 and then lost to Cameroon 1-0 on a penalty kick. Its single point earned the Americans a third-place finish in the four-team tournament.
The good news to come out of the two matches is that the U.S. defense was solid, giving up only one goal in the two matches, that from a penalty kick after midfielder Michael Bradley was called for a foul in the U.S. penalty area in the 24th minute.
The problem was on the front line. The vastly experienced Brian McBride has not played a match since May and since he is between clubs, having left England's Fulham for the Major League Soccer's Chicago Fire, he has not even seriously trained. He is far from match fit and Jozy Altidore, having just joined his new Spanish club Villarreal, is also far from sharp.
It is likely U.S. coach Peter Nowak will start against Japan much the same lineup that faced Cameroon. Brad Guzan will be in goal, the defenders will be Marvell Wynne; Michael Parkhurst, Maurice Edu and Michael Orozco; the midfield will consist of Sacha Kljestan, Michael Bradley, Stuart Holden and Freddy Adu; with Altidore and McBride on top.
Primary substitutes will be Danny Szetela, Dax McCarty, Robbie Rogers, Benny Feilhaber and Charlie Davies.
"As I said before the start of the tournament, the reason we were here was to make progress in the way we play," Nowak said following the loss to Cameroon. "Looking at this game, maybe we're a still a little bit naďve about international football. Going into games like this we have to expect that they'll be physical with a lot of contact, so we have to prevail. For us, I think the second half we played much better. Progress has been made and we expect to go to Tianjin tomorrow and polish the things that we need to this week."
They had better work fast. Japan warned up for its opening encounter with the U.S. by playing tournament favorite Argentina dead even before falling 1-0 in a match abandoned in the 83rd minute because of lightning.
Japan flooded the midfield using a 4-5-1 formation and disrupted the full-strength Argentines throughout the first half before giving up a 64th-minute goal to Angel Di Maria in what was by then a driving rain.
After the game, Argentina manager Sergio Batista paid tribute to Japan's performance. "Both teams' level was fairly even," he said. "Japan was very good in the first half and their control was excellent."
Japan coach Yasuharu Sorimachi is not relying on overage players with most of his team coming from Japan's J-League. Japan is led by right-back Atsuto Uchida of Kashima Antlers, midfielders Hiroyuki Taniguchi of Kawasaki Frontale and Keisuke Honda of the Dutch Eredivisie's VVV Venlo and three strikers Montedio Yamagata's Yohei Toyoda, Kashiwa Reysol's Tadanari Lee and Takayuki Morimoto who plies his trade in Europe with Calcio Catania of the Italian Serie A.
The Netherlands, meanwhile, warmed up by winning the ING Cup tournament following a 1-1 draw with Ivory Coast using a reserve-heavy lineup. The Dutch opened the short tournament with a 2-0 victory over Cameroon.
The Dutch come to the Summer Olympics have placed first in Olympic qualifying in Europe with an experienced team that has recorded much success at the youth international level. The squad features experienced young players such as Vitesse goalkeeper Piet Velthuizen, defenders Dirk Marcellis (PSV Eindhoven, Netherlands), Gianni Zuiverloon (West Bromwich Albion, England), and Urby Emanuelson (Ajax, Netherlands), midfielders Otman Bakkal (PSV Eindhoven), Jonathan de Guzmán (Feyenoord, Netherlands), Hedwiges Maduro (Valencia, Spain), Evander Sno (Celtic, Scotland) and Royston Drenthe (Real Madrid, Spain). The team has two outstanding young strikers in Liverpool's Ryan Babel and Heerenveen's Roy Beerens.
For good measure, the Dutch brought along three stars of the Eredivisie in veteran striker Roy Makaay of Feyenoord and the full national team, Heerenveen striker Gerald Sibon and AZ Alkmaar defender Kew Jaliens.
The third opponent in the group, Nigeria, won the gold medal the Summer Games in Atlanta in 1996. This time, it had to win its final qualifying match against powerhouse Ghana to get to China, but did so in convincing fashion 3-0.
Nigeria's Olympic soccer team coach Samson Siasia has a potent attack featuring young striker Victor Anichebe (Everton, England), and Lokomotiv Moscow's Osaze Odemwingie, who was born in Uzbekistan, but has chose to represent his father's birth country, as well Solomon Okoronkwo of Hertha Berlin of the German Bundesliga.
The defense is anchored by Olympic Marseille's Taye Taiwo, Sparta Rotterdam's Dele Adeleye, and now that he has passed a physical after experiencing heart problems, Efe Ambrose.
The midfield features Sparta Rotterdam's Sani Kaita, Boavista of Portugal's Olufemi Oladapo, and Promise Isaac of Genclerbirligi of Turkey. Emmanuel Ekpo of MLS's Columbus Crew is also on the squad.
One of the three overage players selected by Siasia -- Hapoel Tel-Aviv goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama has not been released by his club. Spain's Getafe initially refused to release Ikechukwu (Ike) Uche, but has relented. The third senior player, Odemwingie, has been with the team throughout training.