(Thursday, August 7, 2008) -- The United States opened Group B of the Men's Olympic Tournament with a fortunate 1-0 decision over Japan before about 38,000 in the newly opened Tiajin (China) Olympic Center Stadium.
The victory, coupled with a 0-0 draw by the other two nations in the group, the Netherlands and Nigeria, left the U.S. at the top of the group, the best possible result from the opening day.
The Americans were fortunate both on the offensive and defensive ends. They created few good scoring chances but, in the 47th minute, right back Marvell Wynne beat a defender down the right side, crossed into the box where Japanese captain Hiroki Mizumoto mis-hit a clearance directly into the path of Stuart Holden. The U.S. midfielder somehow placed his shot through goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa, who got two hands on the ball, but couldn't keep it out.
At the defensive end, the U.S. generally played well, but in the first half gave up three chances that easily should have been converted. Thanks to some woeful finishing on the part of Japan, the Americans went into intermission at 0-0, when they could have easily been down by a goal or two.
In the final 10 minutes, Maurice Edu, playing center back, twice pulled down Japanese attackers in the penalty area. Senegalese referee Badara Diatta did not award a penalty kick in either case, though he easily could have.
U.S. manager Peter Nowak started a more defensive lineup with Freddy Adu on the front line along with Brian McBride when he could have started Jozy Altidore on top with McBride and moved Adu into the midfield. This would have given him more attacking options, but using Holden, Michael Bradley, Sacha Kljestan, and Robbie Rogers in the middle gave him a more solid defense.
Another surprise was playing defensive midfielder Edu as a center back. Frankly, it worked. The late fouls notwithstanding, Edu had a better-than-solid game in the middle of the defense and was able to dribble out of danger on several occasions.
Through much of the match, Japan had more of the possession, but the four-man U.S. midfield consistently broke up Japanese forays. The U.S. tried to get the ball up to Adu, but whenever he touched it, the Japanese immediately collapsed two or three players on him.
"The first game in this kind of tournament is very tight and you have to compete," Nowak said. "I'm very proud of (my team), because the first game is never easy and you never know how it is going to be. You train for three weeks and you try to find the right recipe about how the team will play. It was important to get the three points (for the victory)."
Next, the U.S. faces the Netherlands and Nigeria. The Americans will have to play better if they are to advance to the quarterfinals.
U.S. player ratings
Goalkeeper Brad Guzan - 7: Made the saves he had to make and kept good control of his area in a solid effort.
Defender Marvell Wynne - 6: Beyond his speed, he played solid defense and was also able to push forward.
Defender Michael Orozco - 5.5: Has settled into the left-back role. Was put under frequent pressure when Japan often attacked down his side of the field. Thus he did little offensively, but was very good on defense.
Defender Maurice Edu - 6: In his first start as a central defender, he did very well. He gave the U.S. an added dimension by his ability to carry out of trouble. He must be careful not to foul. With a different referee, his tackles in the box could have brought disaster.
Defender Michael Parkhurst - 5.5: Did just fine, often coming to the rescue of Orozco.
Midfielder Michael Bradley - 5: Without Edu in the midfield, he had more defensive responsibilities. Perhaps, this limited his offensive effectiveness, but generally he had a listless match. He must become more dominant if the U.S. is to advance.
Midfielder Robbie Rogers - 6: He showed both pace and technical ability and was a constant threat on the wing. Still, he has a problem in not making plays quickly enough and could have done better in feeding the front line.
Midfielder Stuart Holden - 5.5: Scored the goal, capitalizing on one of the few open chances the U.S. managed. But his defensive effort was sub-par and, at times, he hung out too far back. Needs to tighten up defensively while still being a threat on attack.
Midfielder Sacha Kljestan - 5: Made good plays from time to time but, as he did during qualifying, played aggressively with little effect.
Forward Freddy Adu - 5.5: As he should be used to by now, he was tightly marked and defended very physically. As a result, he could do little. If he took any time at all on the ball, he was shut down.
Forward Brian McBride -- 5.5: Obviously, he is far from sharp, having not played a competitive match since May. Was able to hold the ball at times, but he received little service and was pretty much left to create for himself. He needs help if he is to be effective.
Forward Jozy Altidore (74th minute for McBride) - 5.5: His pace caused some problems in the final minutes and he came back to add to the defense. A good short shift..
Midfielder Benny Feilhaber (83rd minute for Holden) 5.5: In his short time, he made several good defensive stops.
Midfielder Danny Szetela (87th minute for Rogers) - no rating: Helped the defense.
SoccerTimes U.S. Player of the Match: Brad Guzan.
Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.
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