TIANJIN, China -- Anyone needing an example of the term "sucker punch" needs to only look at the game tape from the Olympic men's soccer match between the United States and the Netherlands. As stoppage time beckoned, the U.S. led 2-1 and was within touching distance of a spot in the quarterfinals. That is until Gerald Sibon's equalizer in the third minute of added time condemned the U.S. to a 2-2 draw on a night when it deserved much more.
"We were close," U.S. coach Peter Nowak said. "It shows that we are capable of great things. We have a great young team who can compete with the guys who play for Real Madrid, Valencia, wherever."
While plenty of credit goes to the players for delivering such a monumental performance, some Olympic-sized plaudits should go to Nowak as well for a tactical shift that helped turn the game around. The Dutch (0-0-2) began the match by repeatedly overloading the wings, using the likes of Jonathan de Guzman to occupy American left back Michael Orozco, while Dutch right winger Roy Beerens ran free. The result was a barrage of crosses that had the Americans scrambling, and when Ryan Babel scored off a rebound from his own header in the 16th minute, it appeared that a rout was in the making.
But midway through the first half, Nowak tweaked his formation, scrapping the 4-4-1-1 for a 4-2-3-1. This took Freddy Adu out of his forward role and placed him on the right wing, with Stuart Holden in the middle and Robbie Rogers on the opposite side. The change not only had the effect of negating Holland's flank play, but it enabled Adu to face up to goal more and allowed him to more easily evade the attentions of Dutch holding midfielder Hedwiges Maduro.
The switch allowed Adu to take off on some mazy runs that didn't result in goals, but did shake the confidence of Holland's defense, and served notice that the U.S. wasn't going to lie down.
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"I think in the beginning of the game, we gave them too much respect," Adu said. "Me personally, I got mad. I was like, 'We can play with these guys.' I had seen our guys day in and day out. ... These guys [from Holland] aren't gods."
The U.S. team's confidence continued to grow, and then snowballed midway through the second half. A quick combination with Adu sprung Sacha Kljestan on a long run that resulted in the tying goal in the 64th minute. Eight minutes later, Orozco pounced on a loose ball in the box and hammered a low cross that deflected off the hip of Holland defender Calvin Jong-a-Pin, then off the knee of substitute Jozy Altidore and into the goal to give the U.S. a 2-1 lead.
Holland's response can only be characterized as desperate, as coach Foppe de Haan went with four forwards, bringing on Sibon as well as the allegedly unavailable Roy Makaay. It was a tactic that worked in spite of itself. In the third minute of stoppage time, Sibon won a free kick from Stuart Holden, and then proceeded to hit a pile driver of a shot that went under the U.S. wall as it jumped. And far from being the canny play that it appeared to be, Sibon admitted afterwards that he "just blasted it on goal, and see where it ends."
From the U.S. perspective, defender Maurice Edu insisted that the members of the wall were in a no-win situation.
"If the wall doesn't jump and [Sibon] bends it over the wall, you say the wall should have jumped," Edu said. "It's hard to predict that in that situation, and when you're on the field, you try to make the best decision at that time."
Still, it was a turn of events that left the entire American team, as well as Nowak, shaking their heads afterward.
"It's tough," Nowak said. "As I told the guys in the locker room, that's the way the game goes sometimes. ... We have unfinished business, and we should have taken care of this business tonight."
What makes Sibon's late heroics even tougher to take is the difficult position it puts the Americans in heading into their last group match against Nigeria (1-0-1), a situation that they were so close to avoiding. Given their greater number of goals scored, all the Americans need is a draw and they will qualify. But both Adu and midfielder Michael Bradley picked up their second yellow cards of the tournament, earning them suspensions. Bradley's situation is particularly galling, given that his yellow card in the previous match against Japan (0-2-0) was for what appeared to be an innocuous foul, while his caution against Holland was for time wasting.
It makes getting the needed result against Nigeria difficult indeed. But that is the situation the Americans are faced with. As Nowak said later, "That's life now. We have to move on."
If the U.S. can shake off this disappointment, then perhaps they'll avoid having this sucker punch turn into a knockout blow.
Player ratings (scale of 1-10)
Brad Guzan, 6 -- Commanded his box with authority, and while he probably wishes he could have redirected Babel's initial shot further away from goal, there was little he could do about Sibon's equalizer.
Michael Orozco, 6 -- Was nearly overwhelmed in the game's opening minutes, but recovered to not only defend his side well, but also was a threat going forward, including his hard cross that led to Altidore's goal.
Maurice Edu, 5 -- Came off second best in his early duels with Babel, and seemed a little wild in his tackling, but his play became more settled as the game went on.
Michael Parkhurst, 7 -- On a day when his central partner struggled a bit, Parkhurst picked up the slack, and rarely put a foot wrong.
Marvell Wynne, 5 -- Spent the first 25 minutes barely marking anyone, but gradually found his feet and marked Royston Drenthe out of the game. Made some demanding runs going forward, but rarely made good use of the ball.
Robbie Rogers, 5 -- An improved performance, especially after he started to track back on the defensive end. Still struggling with his crossing however, which is why he's supposed to be out there to begin with.
Michael Bradley, 6 -- Looked to be at sea in the opening minutes, as Dutch midfielder Ottman Bakkal continually got loose, but he gradually helped the U.S. take control. That said, his second yellow card will prove costly.
Sacha Kljestan, 6 -- His failure to track de Guzman helped lead to Holland's opener, but Kljestan's game grew as the match went on, capping his effort with a superbly taken goal.
Stuart Holden, 6 -- Undid 92 minutes of solid work by giving away a free kick in the most dangerous of spots. It was his move to the center from a wing position that helped settle things down for the Americans, although his poor decision on a late two-on-one denied the U.S. a chance to seal the game.
Freddy Adu, 7 -- Got the American attack going with some fearless runs, and his inch-perfect pass helped spring Kljestan for the first U.S. goal. He also helped keep the play alive in the run-up to the second goal, but his suspension-inducing yellow card hurts.
Brian McBride, 5 -- Never really seemed to get that involved in the offense, but did his bit by holding the ball up and drawing fouls. Had one great header that drew a sharp save.
Jozy Altidore, 7 -- His goal should have been the game winner, but Sibon intervened. With Adu now suspended, expect Altidore to be on the field from the beginning against Nigeria. Can he be the guy to get the U.S. over the hump?
Benny Feilhaber, NR -- One can only hope that his 10 minutes of work was enough to shake the rust off. He'll be needed big-time against Nigeria.
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.