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Aug 11, 2008

U.S. looks to exploit Nigeria's defensive vulnerability

BEIJING -- When the men's Olympic soccer draw was announced back in April, the United States' group opponents represented a barrier of Great Wall-like proportions, at least as far as reaching the quarterfinals was concerned. But as the Americans head into their last group match against Nigeria with four points already in the bag, it's safe to say that their biggest obstacle will be recovering from their hangover-inducing collapse against the Netherlands.

The U.S. was literally seconds away from booking its place in the quarterfinals until a late equalizer from Dutch substitute Gerald Sibon dashed American hopes in the cruelest of fashions. The U.S. still controls its own fate in that even a draw against Nigeria would allow the Americans to advance, and a loss might not eliminate them if Japan were to somehow earn a win or draw against the Netherlands. The question is: Can the U.S. regroup mentally? According to forward Brian McBride, the Americans' hopes rest on applying a healthy dose of selective amnesia.

"We have to make sure we get [the last game] out of our heads and focus on the positive things that we can take out of it," McBride said. "When we're together, and we're all hunting the ball together, it's very difficult for teams to break us down."

But when the same subject was broached with U.S. coach Peter Nowak at Monday's news conference, he said that although the team's mental state was solid, his side still has some lessons to learn about what it takes to get results on the international stage. Wednesday's match, he said, should provide the perfect test.

"We are still a little bit naive about thinking, 'Maybe we can get away with this kind of situation; maybe we can cheat a little bit the other way,'" Nowak said. "We have a chance to establish ourselves at the high international level. We need to make the final push."

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Nigeria
Wednesday
Beijing
5 a.m. ET

Nowak will have to make his latest assault on the international mountain without attacker Freddy Adu and midfielder Michael Bradley, who are both suspended for the match thanks to the accumulation of yellow cards. Although Adu's attacking verve is impossible to replace, a more powerful player like Jozy Altidore could pose a different kind of offensive threat, one that is perhaps better suited to the physicality that Nigeria will bring to the game.

Finding Bradley's replacement could be a bit trickier. Will Nowak go for the better passing, but lesser defense of a Benny Feilhaber? Or will he opt for a player with more grit, such as a Danny Szetela or Dax McCarty? Given the pace of Nigeria's front line and the power of its midfield, opting for more midfield steel would seem to be the prudent approach, but Nowak didn't tip his hand one way or the other.

What he did make clear was that he hoped to use Nigeria's insatiable desire to attack in all situations to the U.S.' advantage. During the game against Japan, Nigeria's defenders jumped into the attack even when they had a two-goal lead. Such movement nearly cost the team, as Japan pulled a goal back late and nearly equalized at the finish. Because Nigerian defenders Onyekachi Apam and Olubayo Adefemi are both suspended and because a draw might not be enough for Nigeria to advance, the U.S. could find success hitting its opponents on the break.

"[Nigeria] might not be as technical as Holland, but their athleticism and the quality of players they have is pretty good," said U.S. midfielder Sacha Kljestan. "But they have pockets as well in their defense where we can find spaces with the ball and try to exploit them."

The key, according to Nowak, is to play differently from what the opponent expects. "You always play the game that they don't like," Nowak said. "If you play opponents that like to kick the ball, then you kick the ball. If your opponents like to be physical, then you be physical. And if the team is attacking, well, then let's find out how they are defensively."

But counterattacking success requires the U.S. to be solid at the back, and although that trait has been evident for the most part in this tournament, the Americans face Victor Nsofor Obinna, a forward who is finding his form at the right time. Obinna tallied a goal and an assist in his side's win over Japan. And although Peter Odemwingie and Promise Isaac have yet to find the net, their speed is capable of unhinging any defense.

"It's going to be quite a fight, because of their physical ability, their movement, especially because of the three [forwards] up top," Nowak said of Nigeria. "They are big, strong, fast guys who can create something."

Yet it all comes back to the Americans' mental approach, and whether they can find a way to break through and earn the result that eluded them against the Dutch.

"We just have to make sure we don't talk about moral victories," Nowak said. "In big tournaments, what is needed are results. That is the essence of international soccer."

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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