TIANJIN, China -- One of the supposed benefits of having a round-robin format in the first round of a tournament is that with each team playing three games, one bad result isn't fatal. But given the slate of matches thrown at the U.S. men's Olympic team, Thursday's opening encounter against Japan has the feel of a one-game playoff, and anything less than a victory will deal a devastating blow to the Americans' chances of advancing.
With the Netherlands and Nigeria the favorites of Group B, Japan is the weakest of the Americans' first-round opponents, but that doesn't mean the match will be a Sunday stroll for the Yanks. Despite naming no overage players to its roster, Japan will field a talented, technical side that should do plenty to test a U.S. defense that lacks depth.
"I think the strength of the Japanese team is their collective," said U.S. head coach Peter Nowak at Tuesday's news conference. "They've played together for an extended period of time and they understand each other well. ... They are very disciplined, the game they play, and at any given time they can hurt you and put on a good counterattack."
One of the keys to the Japanese attack will be midfielder Keisuke Honda, who will be expected to feed forward Takayuki Morimoto. Honda joined Dutch side VVV-Venlo last January, just in time to play against a Heerenveen team featuring U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley. Heerenveen pummeled Venlo 5-1 on that day, but despite receiving the beat-down, Honda still made an impression on his American adversary.
"[Honda] is a pretty mobile guy," said Bradley following Monday's training session. "He works hard, and he's certainly a good player, someone we need to keep an eye on."
|U.S. men's schedule|
|U.S. vs. Japan
5 a.m. ET
U.S. vs. Netherlands
U.S. vs. Nigeria
With Honda expected to line up on the right side of midfield, the task for limiting his influence will fall primarily on defender Michael Orozco, although given Honda's ability to pop up anywhere, keeping tabs on him will be a team effort. Compounding matters is that Honda isn't alone in his ability to impact a game. Yohei Kajiyama and Hiroyuki Taniguchi also add creative elements, giving Japan a potent, multi-pronged attack out of midfield.
But for all of Japan's creative artistry, a bigger concern for the U.S. will be finding a way to get its own offense unstuck. The Americans failed to score in two warm-up games at last week's ING Cup, and they managed only six goals in five qualifying matches. The team's near total reliance on set-pieces was also illustrated, as only one of those tallies came from open play. Japanese head coach Yasuharu Sorimachi is well aware of this tendency.
"The only thing we need to care about is that the players of the U.S. are physically stronger than us," Sorimachi said at Tuesday's news conference through two layers of translation.
Nowak made no apologies for his team's prowess from dead-ball situations, pointing out that in Germany's Euro 2008 quarterfinal win over Portugal, their two set piece goals were the difference in a 3-2 victory.
"Nobody complained about that," said Nowak.
But the concern is that the Americans' attacking woes run much deeper. The U.S. has tried to bolster its offense with the addition of overage forward Brian McBride, and his presence should add to the team's potency from dead-ball situations. But how to best position other attacking players -- like Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu -- in relation to McBride is still an open question. Opting for a five-man midfield with Altidore on the wing not only frees Adu to be at his creative best, but it would also allow a player like Benny Feilhaber to play centrally alongside Bradley and help dictate the midfield tempo. This, in turn, would help counter Japan's more dynamic midfield elements.
But in the Americans' warm-up matches, Nowak has opted for a diamond approach in midfield with Adu at the top. Whether that's a case of the U.S. coach playing possum will be revealed Thursday, but whatever Nowak's strategy, the key is to give McBride and Altidore the service they need.
Adding to the attacking difficulties is the fact that McBride has had just three weeks to get acquainted with the other creative elements of the U.S. offense, players whose experience together at both youth and senior levels has given them a higher degree of understanding. At Tuesday's news conference, Altidore admitted that there has been "a little bit of a learning curve," in establishing some cohesion with McBride, but that he expects to benefit from the veteran's presence in the box.
For Nowak, increasing this chemistry -- in attack and defense -- is what concerns him most.
"The question remains: 'Are we going to be as collective as we can be against the other teams?'" said Nowak. "Of course, the group is very, very [difficult] for us, and for everybody ... But nobody has a crystal ball to predict how the tournament is going to go. We have to control what we can control."
And if the U.S. can garner a victory Thursday, then it will have as firm a grip as possible on its own quarterfinal destiny.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.