BEIJING -- If there was a competition judged solely on guts, the U.S. men's Olympic soccer team would be runaway gold-medal winners. Unfortunately, some other key attributes are needed just to progress to the knockout stages of this tournament. Qualities like discipline and a bit of luck are required as well. It was the absence of these traits that condemned the Americans to a 2-1 defeat to Nigeria, and when coupled with the Netherlands' 1-0 win over Japan, earned the U.S. a first-round exit at these Olympic Games.
"Those guys are my boys," said Nowak. "They played so hard tonight For me, they won the gold medal in this game."
But while the U.S. team was largely deserving of such praise, it's likely the disappointment of coming so close will dampen those sentiments, especially given how at times the U.S. was its own worst enemy.
Heading into the match, most of the questions focused on how the team would manage without suspended players Michael Bradley and Freddy Adu. But less than three minutes into the contest, the Americans were wondering if they could simply survive. A rash elbow by defender Michael Orozco to the chest of Nigerian midfielder Solomon Okoronkwo resulted in a straight red card, leaving the U.S. to play the rest of the match a man short.
Was it the most vicious elbow ever thrown in the sport? Hardly, but there are some acts that are guaranteed to earn a player an early shower, and cocking, throwing and then landing an elbow into an opposing player, all in full view of the referee, is one of those things.
Orozco refused to address the incident's specifics, insisting "I gotta keep going forward," and you couldn't blame him given the hole he probably wanted to climb into. As for Nowak, he swears he didn't see it, but the vibe emanating from the U.S. coach and several of the players was one of incredulity that referee Wolfgang Stark could render such a game-changing decision so early in the match.
"I think maybe the ref rushed his decision to show the red card," said Nowak.
Regardless of how the U.S. team felt about the call, its play immediately afterward and Nowak's initial choice of tactics didn't help the American cause. Rather than bring on a more defensive-minded player like Dax McCarty to fill Orozco's vacated position, Nowak opted to move Robbie Rogers to left back, a role for which he is ill-suited.
The Americans' inability to hold possession also hobbled any attempts to deal with the man-disadvantage. Brian McBride and Jozy Altidore in particular struggled in their attempts to pass and control the ball, but so virulent was this virus that practically no player was immune.
That left it to Nigeria to play the smart, patient possession game, and after a few near misses, the Super Eaglets broke on top in the 39th minute. For one of the few times all day, Michael Parkhurst was cleanly beaten to the byline by Chinedu Ogbuke Obasi. With Rogers late to come over and cover the middle, Obasi's centering feed found a wide-open Promise Isaac, who tapped home from close range. It should be noted that on the day, Rogers made the best of an extremely difficult situation, but his lack of defensive instincts was exposed on this play.
Nowak scored points tactically by bringing on Benny Feilhaber for the disappointing Altidore at halftime, and it was Feilhaber's patience and ability to win free kicks that saw the U.S. side create some stellar opportunities.
A pinpoint cross from Rogers was volleyed wide by an embarrassingly open Stuart Holden in the 52nd minute, and three minutes later Holden turned provider, but his free kick was nodded over the bar by Sacha Kljestan from closer range.
But Nigeria was always threatening on the break and after Feilhaber nearly scored an own goal, Victor Obinna appeared to seal matters in the 79th minute, when his twisting run left Parkhurst and Marvell Wynne in his wake, leaving him to finish with authority past Brad Guzan.
But as they have shown the entire tournament, the U.S. players refused to die. Kljestan slotted home an 88th-minute penalty after Maurice Edu had been upended in the penalty area. And incredibly, the U.S. nearly equalized in stoppage time after substitute Charlie Davies nodded McCarty's free kick onto the crossbar.
But in the end, it wasn't enough, and the U.S will be left to rue not only Orozco's red card, but the ripple effect from some bad habits that emerged over the course of the tournament. Among these were the team's difficulty in closing out games, and its inability to stay away from yellow (and red) cards.
"Words can't really express the pain we felt out there on the field today," said Kljestan. "In the third minute we felt a lot of pain, and after the 90th minute we felt even more pain. I'm very sad for my teammates. I thought they worked pretty hard and responded pretty well."
One can only hope that the U.S. players will learn from this experience, and win a gold in an international tournament, in addition to the one they already have for guts.
Player ratings (scale of 0-10)
Brad Guzan, 7 -- Capped a solid tournament by once again commanding his box and making some sharp saves, including a near own goal by Feilhaber.
Michael Orozco, 0 -- Earned an absolutely silly -- and backbreaking -- red card by deliberately elbowing Okoronkwo in the chest in full view of the referee, ending his day after less than three minutes.
Michael Parkhurst, 5 -- Was beaten for both of the goals, but he also put out plenty of fires, and his solid positioning helped keep the U.S. in the game.
Maurice Edu, 4 -- Normally a precise passer, Edu's distribution was off, and he made some poor decisions as well in terms of trying to shepherd balls out of bounds, only to end up conceding corner kicks. Did well to earn the U.S. a penalty however, although one has to wonder about the Nigerian keeper's recklessness.
Marvell Wynne, 5 -- Took off on some menacing runs, but his passing was often off the mark. Bears some culpability for the second Nigeria goal.
Robbie Rogers, 5 -- Gets special dispensation for being forced to play in a completely unfamiliar position. Struggled mightily in the first half, and was beaten for the first Nigeria goal, but actually looked more comfortable as the game went on.
Sacha Kljestan, 5 -- Showed tremendous grit and leadership, as he never stopped battling, but he was one of the guiltier parties in the first half in terms of giving the ball away.
Stuart Holden, 6 -- Blocked countless shots in the first half, and his set-piece delivery, with a few exceptions, was menacing. However, his miss of a golden opportunity inside the Nigerian box came back to haunt the U.S.
Danny Szetela, 5 -- Got up and down the field well, and provided a good option out wide at times. Should have done better with a chance in the 59th minute when he shot tamely with only the keeper to beat.
Brian McBride, 4 -- There were times when his physical presence was a plus, but these moments were all too rare. His touch and distribution were subpar.
Jozy Altidore, 3 -- Never got going, and when he did receive the ball, he couldn't stop passing it to the other team.
Benny Feilhaber, 6 -- He wasn't 100 percent sharp, but his cleverness on the ball helped settle the game for the U.S., helping the team see more of the ball.
Dax McCarty, 6 -- Picked up the slack well from Holden, battling in midfield and delivering some dangerous free kicks.
Charlie Davies, 7 -- A performance like this makes you wonder why this guy didn't get more playing time. Davies was a constant threat up top, and was unlucky to hit the bar on a late header.
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.