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Aug 3, 2008

U.S. faces a tough test in the group stage

With the daily countdown to the start of the Olympics now in single digits, U.S. men's head coach Peter Nowak must feel like a chef ready to make the perfect dish, only to find that he has the wrong quantities of each ingredient. It's possible that Nowak might yet find the right mix and steer the Americans into the latter stages of the tournament. But there is a greater probability that a winning recipe will remain elusive, with the U.S. heading home after just three games, especially given the difficult draw the team has been handed.

At issue is the present composition of the U.S. roster, a situation not entirely of Nowak's making given how injuries, the crowded international calendar, and the reluctance of European clubs to release players have conspired to limit his choices.

In midfield, the Pole almost has too many options, with Michael Bradley, Benny Feilhaber and Sacha Kljestan all poised to get significant playing time. In fact, Nowak's midfield is so deep that Maurice Edu looks set to reprise the central defender role he assumed during parts of qualifying. This move was made necessary by the shoulder injury that sidelined Jonathan Spector earlier this summer, and the recent hamstring injury that knocked Nathan Sturgis out of the tournament, ailments that have exposed the Americans' lack of depth in the back.

The Yanks' presumed starting back four look solid enough, with Edu partnering Michael Parkhurst in the middle while Michael Orozco and Marvell Wynne man the left and right flanks, respectively. Houston Dynamo defender Patrick Ianni will provide cover in the middle, but Nowak will be communing with all manner of soccer deities in the hope that injury, suspension or poor form doesn't rob him of Orozco or Wynne. There simply isn't anyone else on the roster who possesses the same level of comfort at those positions. Dax McCarty or Danny Szetela could move there in a pinch, but the thought of either one of them going up against Holland's Ryan Babel is enough to give one the shakes.

There is always the possibility that Nowak could revert to a three-man back line, a system that served him well as manager of D.C. United. But that is an approach that has yet to be trotted out by the U.S. manager, either in qualifying or in friendlies, making it unlikely he'll employ it when the stakes are highest.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Japan
Aug. 7
Tianjin, China
5 a.m. ET

U.S. vs. Netherlands
Aug. 10
Tianjin, China
7:45 a.m. ET

U.S. vs. Nigeria
Aug. 13
Beijing, China
5 a.m. ET

But for all the concerns about the defense, it at least delivered a solid display in last Wednesday's 0-0 draw with Ivory Coast at the ING Cup, a pre-Olympic tournament being held in Hong Kong. The same can't be said for the team's attack. Granted, expecting a sharp performance when the team had barely been in Asia for 36 hours is asking a lot, but a greater worry is how the respective pieces will fit together, especially as it pertains to Freddy Adu, Jozy Altidore and overage addition Brian McBride.

Adu has been most effective in an advanced midfield/withdrawn striker role, and his lack of defense isn't an issue when there are two central midfielders playing behind him. But if Nowak opts to use Adu at the top of a four-man diamond formation like he did on Wednesday, the two outside midfielders will be required to pinch in and help out defensively. This presumably allows Orozco or Wynne to bomb forward, but their ability to provide the kind of service McBride thrives on is an open question, and with the other flank players otherwise engaged, both McBride and Altidore might find themselves starved of service.

That leaves Nowak in the position of employing a five-man midfield, forgoing the twin towers approach, and moving Altidore out on the flank. It's a position he has played before, and it's also where he tends to drift anyway, but on a team that has struggled to score goals from open play in the best of times, lining Altidore up out wide doesn't appear to play to his strengths. It would also consign a more natural flank player like Robbie Rogers to the bench.

But despite its warts, this is the approach that I think Nowak ultimately will go for, as it frees Adu to do what he does best: freelance and create havoc in the attacking third, without having to worry about any defensive responsibilities. It also would allow Feilhaber and Bradley to resume a midfield partnership that has been in hibernation ever since Feilhaber's club career went off the rails. If both performers can control matters in midfield -- Feilhaber with his passing, Bradley with his hustle and defensive acumen -- then the Americans' slim chances of progressing to the medal round go up dramatically.

Experience should also be the Americans' ally, with 12 members of the 18-man roster having appeared with the full national team. But that alone won't put the ball in the net, or keep the Americans' goal clean, especially against an imposing trio of group opponents that includes Holland, Nigeria and Japan.

Nowak has precious few days left to come up with a winning concoction prior to his team's first game on Aug. 7 against Japan, a game the Americans absolutely must win in order to have any hopes of advancing. Garnering a result against Nigeria will be imperative as well, given that the U.S. seems unlikely to get anything out of its game against a loaded Holland side. If the Americans can meet or exceed that game plan, then perhaps a quarterfinal feast awaits them.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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