TIANJIN, China -- Ever since the U.S. men's Olympic soccer team began its journey to Beijing, its play has earned the moniker of The Just Good Enough XI. Manager Peter Nowak's side has rarely been scintillating, but has often done the minimum required to get a result. Such was the case on an oppressively hot Thursday night at Tianjin's Olympic Center Stadium, as the U.S. ground out a 1-0 win over Japan that was as gritty as it was vital.
"The boys put up quite a fight," Nowak said. "And I'm very proud of them because the first game is never easy. You never know how it's going to be."
The honor of match winner went to American midfielder Stuart Holden, who pounced on a weak clearance from Japanese defender Hiroki Mizumoto two minutes after halftime, and rifled home a shot that goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa got a piece of, but could only watch trickle over the goal line.
It was one of the few dangerous chances created by the U.S. all night. Freddy Adu was for the most part held in check by the Japanese defense, and with Jozy Altidore surprisingly consigned to the bench, Brian McBride was often left starved of support.
Yet if the U.S. attack was akin to a LeRoy Neiman painting, the defensive effort was closer to Picasso, with converted midfielder Maurice Edu delivering a mammoth performance at the center of the American back line.
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"I don't think [Edu] lost a tackle all game," said fellow defender Michael Parkhurst, who delivered a capable performance of his own. "It seemed like every time he was in a one-on-one situation, he came out on top. He was real strong, read the game well, and overall he had a solid game."
It's fair to say that it wasn't necessity that drove Nowak to move Edu into the back. It was more like desperation. With Jonathan Spector and Nathan Sturgis both ruled out by injury, the Polish-born coach had little choice but to turn to Edu.
Yet the Toronto FC man has turned Nowak's misery into genius, and given the way Japan controlled possession in the first half, Edu -- along with back-line mates Parkhurst, Marvell Wynne and Michael Orozco -- needed to stay solid. Japan controlled the game as right back Atsuto Uchida practically wore a groove in the Americans' half of the turf during the first 45 minutes.
Japan should have struck first in the 21st minute when a clever short corner involving Uchida and Keisuke Honda somehow resulted in Masato Morishige failing to turn home Uchida's cross toward the far post, which was wide open.
To its credit, the U.S. did see more of the ball in the second half, a good thing given the energy-sapping conditions that saw game-time temperatures reach over 90 degrees.
"I think we needed to settle the game down and keep the ball more; make them run and not make us run," midfielder Sacha Kljestan said. "I think we did that. After we scored we made them run a little bit."
That ability to keep possession was aided by the fact that the game opened up once Japan fell behind. The increased space made life easier for Adu, as well as for Altidore when he came on for McBride in the second half.
But the U.S. certainly didn't have things go its way. In fact, Honda spurned an opportunity in the 83rd minute when his close-range header from a Yuto Nagatomo cross was sent over the bar.
The U.S. managed to survive the late onslaught, and combined with Holland's tie against Nigeria in the second match, the Americans find themselves -- improbably -- atop Group B.
That said, there is still plenty of work to be done. As important as this victory was, the U.S. needs to raise its game considerably if it is to get points out of its remaining games against the Netherlands and Nigeria. In particular, the attack -- despite ending its scoreless streak at 425 minutes -- will need to provide more of a threat and keep possession better than it did against Japan.
And in a bit of a paradox, the draw between the Netherlands and Nigeria probably hurts the Americans' cause. If form holds in the next round, with both the Netherlands and Nigeria winning, the U.S. finds itself needing to win its final-game showdown with Nigeria in order to progress.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The Americans secured the three points that were critical to their chances of advancement, and they were just good enough to keep their quarterfinal hopes alive.
Player ratings (scale of 1-10)
Brad Guzan, 6 -- Save for one missed punch late in the match, he commanded his box well and made the plays that he needed to.
Michael Orozco, 6 -- His one-on-one defending held up during Japan's all-out, first-half assault on his side of the field. But he needs to be in sync more with fellow left-sided player Robbie Rogers, as Uchida found space far too often.
Maurice Edu, 8 -- In a word, immense. Looked nothing like a converted midfielder, and every bit like a future central defender for the full national team. Needs to be a bit more careful around the box, as some late penalty appeals could have gone against him.
Michael Parkhurst, 7 -- Answered any lingering, pre-tournament questions about his play and didn't allow Japanese forward Takayuki Morimoto to get a sniff.
Marvell Wynne, 7 -- His cross that led to Holden's goal wasn't the prettiest, but it caused enough havoc to result in a goal. He also snuffed out plenty of dangerous moments, including a vital deflection of an Uchida cross in the 40th minute that prevented a goal.
Stuart Holden, 6 -- Was in the right spot at the right time to slot home the game's only goal. He also showed plenty of industrious work on the right side of the midfield.
Michael Bradley, 6 -- Augmented the Americans' defensive effort with solid play in front of the back line. He also looked dangerous going forward.
Sacha Kljestan, 5 -- Started out slowly with some careless giveaways, but like many of the Americans, got stronger as the game went on.
Robbie Rogers, 4 -- His play was a disappointment. He broke free on the left flank several times, but the quality of his crossing was subpar. He also needed to help out more defensively as Orozco was put under considerable pressure.
Freddy Adu, 4 -- Was absolutely invisible early on, but did manage to have more of an impact in the second half. Still, given that he's the team's presumed playmaker, he needs to deliver more.
Brian McBride, 5 -- Rarely looked threatening in attack, but his ability to win free kicks helped settle some early nerves. Looks like he could use about a month more on the practice field with Adu.
Jozy Altidore, 6 -- Staked his claim for more playing time with an energetic display, and nearly sealed the game with a late goal, only to be denied by Nishikawa.
Benny Feilhaber, Danny Szetela, NR -- Late midfield cameos for both players.
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.