TIANJIN, China -- If there is any truth to the adage that timing is everything, the men's Olympic soccer match Sunday between the United States and the Netherlands just might be proof. What initially was thought to be a mere formality for the Dutch masters now looks to be nothing of the sort, given the depleted roster at the disposal of Dutch coach Foppe de Haan. And this confluence of circumstances increases the odds -- however slim -- of the U.S. team punching a ticket to the second round.
Then there is the team's difficulty in adapting to the lung-busting heat that has been a staple here in Tianjin. Midfielder Hedwiges Maduro was completely gassed after just 30 minutes Thursday and was substituted at halftime. This has led to speculation that de Haan might not risk starting Maduro again, lest he be forced to burn another early substitution.
"In these circumstances, it is a real problem," de Haan said of his reduced numbers. "In the next game, we will have 14 field players, and we'll use them all. It's a problem, but we can't change it. We have to live with it. We'll have to be careful with our energy. We'll have to be very careful and use our mind in a good way."
Such a cautious approach is consistent with that mapped out by de Haan prior to the tournament, in which he said the weather demanded more of a counterattacking strategy rather than the classic Dutch style of always taking the game to the opponent. Whether that will transpire Sunday remains to be seen, and American forward Brian McBride remains wary of Holland's true intentions.
|U.S. men's schedule|
|U.S. vs. Netherlands
7:45 a.m. ET
U.S. vs. Nigeria
"I think any time you're playing a team that is talking about counterattacking, you've got to make sure you don't leave yourself open," McBride said. "But I'd be surprised if that were the case [with Holland]. They are very much a high-possession team, and we're going to try and disrupt that as much as possible. But we have to make sure we do it in the right spots. We can't get spread out and let them find spaces to [attack] in."
If any team can survive a depleted roster, it's the Netherlands. The squad is loaded with players plying their trade for some of the biggest clubs in the world, with Liverpool's Ryan Babel, Real Madrid's Royston Drenthe and Feyenoord's Jonathan de Guzman just a few of the standouts.
It's that kind of quality that has de Haan still confident of victory Sunday. Following Thursday's match, the Dutch coach even went so far as to say the U.S. doesn't "have the level of Nigeria." Friday, he clarified his remarks.
"Nigeria is confident on the ball," de Haan said. "They let the ball go, and they have two good strikers. The Americans are more of a team with players on the same level. No one is exceedingly good, but they are all on the same level, and they have a good system. It is totally different from Nigeria in my opinion."
While Babel will be more of the go-to guy up top now that Makaay is injured, wide midfielders Drenthe and de Guzman, as well as attacking fullbacks Gianni Zuiverloon and Calvin Jong-a-Pin, are just as big a dangers in the eyes of U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley. Having spent three seasons playing in the Dutch league with Heerenveen, Bradley is well versed in the threat posed by Holland's flank play. Japan's wide players stretched the U.S. to the breaking point Thursday, and Bradley knows Holland's players represent a step up in quality.
"[The Dutch] have a lot of speed going forward with Babel and the guys out wide," Bradley said via e-mail. "They have the chance to go from defending to turning it right around the other way really quickly."
In Makaay's absence, Dutch hopes also will rest on Gerald Sibon, a teammate of Bradley's at Heerenveen. While Sibon delivered a subpar performance against Nigeria in relief of Makaay, he does possess the kind of power and finishing skill that could trouble the American back line.
As for the U.S., it, too, will be aiming to recover from the difficult weather conditions. The suspicion is that U.S. coach Peter Nowak will mine his midfield depth in a bid to have as many fresh legs on the field as possible, with either Benny Feilhaber or Danny Szetela earning more playing time.
After his energetic performance as a substitute Thursday, Jozy Altidore also is a candidate to start. But Nowak also pronounced himself pleased with the way his team is recovering, even as the squad headed to Beijing for Friday's opening ceremonies.
"We can't just have one good game in this competition," Nowak said. "We have to have the second and the third, and that is more important than anything. We're doing everything we can to bring [the players] back and bring them back in a good condition. Physically, we're very good, and mentally, the spirit is very good right now, so it shouldn't be a problem for the second game versus Holland."
Bradley added, "It's the Olympics, so I think you always find a little bit of extra energy and extra motivation to make sure that at 7:45 on Sunday night, we're ready to go."
That extra jump in midfield hopefully will add some spark to a U.S. attack that was stuck in neutral for most of Thursday's game against Japan. Nowak noted that he had spoken with midfielder Freddy Adu about being more active throughout the match, rather than in the spurts that characterized his performance Thursday.
"[Adu] needs to find a balance on the field. Sometimes [on Thursday], he was too far up the field and sometimes too low," Nowak said. "When we find the rhythm of playing every three days, I'm sure Freddy will find the balance."
If finding that balance results in a win Sunday, it will be another case of near-perfect timing.
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.