(Wednesday, August 13, 2008) -- For the second match in a row, the United States was undone by a mental error. Largely as a result of defender Michael Orozco's red card in the third minute, the shorthanded Americans were at a disadvantage throughout the 2-1 Group B loss to Nigeria that eliminated the U.S. from the advancement to the Summer Olympics quarterfinals.
Had Japan defeated or tied the Netherlands, the U.S. would have still made the quarterginals, but the Dutch used a second-half goal to defeat Japan 1-0.
In Beijing, Orozco threw an elbow into the chest of Solomon Okoronko and was promptly ejected with a red card at the onset. It was not a heavy blow, and in the Mexican league where Orozco plays would hardly have been noticed. But in this Olympics, the referees have been told very specifically to penalize thrown elbows and the players had been warned that the referees would call elbows very closely.
Orozco chose to throw his elbow right in front of German referee Wolfgang Starg. While the red card he received might be viewed as unusually harsh, Orozco was dumb to have thrown it.
The U.S. was already playing without attackers Freddy Adu and Michael Bradley, both of whom had accumulated two yellow cards and were suspended for the match. U.S. coach Peter Novak dropped winger Robbie Rogers back into defense on the left side and the shorthanded Americans tried to go into a defensive shell, hoping for a draw or a counter-attacking goal or dead-ball opportunity.
They made it through 39 minutes when Nigeria's best player, Chinedu Ogbuke Obasi rounded Michael Parkhurst on the left side, brought the ball into the penalty area on the end line and centered to a wide-open Promise Isaac in the middle for an easy tap-in goal and 1-0 lead.
Once again, converted midfielder Maurice Edu showed he lacks the instincts of a central defender when he stood ball watching and allowed Isaac to run in behind him and get off the unguarded shot.
Victor Obinna similarly felt no pressure in the box when he curled a shot into the corner for the net for a 2-0 advantage in the 79th minute.
In the second half, the U.S. tried to come back, especially after it became know that the Netherlands had gone ahead in its match with Japan. If the Dutch tied or lost, the Americans would have advanced regardless of their result. If the Netherlands won, the U.S. needed a victory to stay alive.
In the 88th minute, the U.S. pulled to within 2-1 on a Sacha Kljestan penalty kick and nearly tied the game when late substitute Charlie Davies hit the crossbar with a sharply-struck header off a free kick.
The early expulsion of Orozco and the suspension of the Adu and Bradley, two of the Americans best, caused an odd lineup and a completely defensive game. Down a man, Nowak made a substitution that saw striker Jozy Altidore depart in favor of defensive midfielder Benny Feilhaber.
That change was hard to understand with the U.S. a goal down. Feilhaber played well and helped tighten up the U.S. defense, but the U.S. was pretty much without an attack until Davies entered in the 77th minute. He was a handful for Nigeria and one might wonder why he was not inserted earlier.
Perhaps the post-game hand-wringing over the Americans' ouster is fairly academic. Had they come back and tied Nigeria to advance, their quarterfinal opponent Saturday would have been Argentina. Had they defeated Nigeria, the U.S. opponent would have been the Ivory Coast. The two have been among the very best in China during group play. By not getting out of the Group B, the U.S., at best, probably hastened their trip home only by four days.