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Aug 15, 2008

Moral victories no longer suffice for U.S.

SHANGHAI -- Depending on one's perspective, the U.S. men's Olympic soccer team was either a few seconds or a few inches from landing an unlikely spot in the quarterfinals. But Gerald Sibon's late goal denied the U.S. a victory over the Netherlands in the second game of group play, in which it tied 2-2, and Charlie Davies' stoppage time header hit the bar in the Americans' 2-1 loss to Nigeria. It's difficult to fathom how a team could come any closer to advancing without going through.

But that's what happened.

Now with the Americans' disappointing exit a couple of days old, I get the sense that there is something more sinister at work here. Something like traces of an entitlement mentality from some players and an inferiority complex in others. These two factors not only undermined all that was good about the Americans' effort here in China, but they could be problematic down the road.

Certainly, there was plenty to like about this U.S. team. The Americans showed tremendous heart, and played some solid and at times exciting soccer, exceeding my expectations. Sacha Kljestan emerged as one of the team's leaders and showed a willingness to take responsibility during tough times. Michael Parkhurst, Brad Guzan and Freddy Adu also enjoyed solid tournaments, with Adu showing flashes of his long-touted ability. The trick now is for Adu to replicate this form at club level.

But as the players addressed the assembled media following the Nigeria match, there was more than just a whiff of past failures in the air. There was an undercurrent of "blame the referee," with Wednesday's arbiter, Wolfgang Stark, playing the part of 2006 World Cup villain Markus Merk, who you'll recall made a controversial penalty decision on Oguchi Onyewu that condemned the Americans to a 2-1 loss against Ghana.

This sentiment was accompanied by a general bemoaning of how the team didn't get the requisite breaks needed to advance in the tournament, ignoring the fact that Japan squandered some clear opportunities in the opening game of the competition.

The prevailing mood was capped off by the assertion that the U.S. proved it could play on the international stage, having given its opponents -- all of whom are regarded as having superior technical skill -- everything they could handle.

"I played against Japan, the Netherlands and Nigeria, and we all did well for ourselves," defender Marvell Wynne said. "We know we can compete with teams of that caliber. It's a stepping stone moving forward."

This statement is both 100 percent accurate and troubling at the same time. As I traveled to Shanghai on Thursday, fellow scribe Michael Lewis pulled out an article he had written for the now-defunct Soccer Magazine in 1996 after the Americans' exit from that year's Olympics. In it was telling quote from then-Olympic head coach Bruce Arena.

"We proved we could play with the rest of the world," Arena said in that article. "We're certainly disappointed we did not advance. We surprised a lot of people around the world showing we could play with such style and class."

The fact that such sentiments are being echoed 12 years later is sobering to say the least. If the Olympic and senior U.S. teams are going to consistently advance to the latter stages of tournaments, it needs to stop finding comfort in an attitude that is oddly reminiscent of Netherlands or Mexico when those teams exit major competitions. Saying "We played the better soccer," or "We showed the world we could play," accomplishes nothing.

Is the U.S. a better soccer country than it was 12 years ago? Of course, but the same is true of other nations, and in these competitions, it's all about getting results.

To be fair, players such as Stuart Holden admitted as much. And despite his pronouncement after the Nigeria game that the U.S. "won the gold medal" with its effort, head coach Peter Nowak understands this as well. The next step is to stop settling for playing well, and also recognize the fact that if a team takes eight yellow cards and one red in three games, then perhaps the problem isn't the referees, but the players themselves.

As for Nowak, he deserves plaudits for squeezing plenty out of his side during this tournament. His tactical adjustments during the Netherlands game, when the Dutch threatened to overwhelm the U.S., were pure genius.

That's not to say Nowak was perfect. His decision in the Nigeria game to move Robbie Rogers to left back after Michael Orozco's ejection proved costly, as Rogers inexperience contributed to Nigeria's first goal. But that scenario was rooted in a decision made back in July when the roster was first put together. Simply put, Nowak blundered in naming defender Frankie Hejduk as one of the alternates to be called upon in case of injury. The Olympic tournament is a U-23 competition that allows three overage players, and at age 34, Hejduk could only replace one of the other overage performers already on the roster. When 21-year-old left back Nathan Sturgis injured his hamstring prior to the competition's start, there was no ready-made replacement.

Nowak later named Kansas City Wizards' defender Michael Harrington as an alternate, but by then it was too late. The U.S. manager was forced to move Orozco from his preferred center back position to left back, and then move Maurice Edu from midfield to center back. Putting Rogers in a position of weakness against Nigeria was simply the last domino to fall.

So in the end, the Americans' Olympic adventure ended the same way so many other tournaments have: they went down fighting, but they still went down in the first round. The next opportunity for redemption comes in 2010 and the U.S. can only hope that when that tournament ends, they'll be talking of how they advanced, rather than how they once again fell just short.

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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