Thoughts on the U.S. Olympic openers

August, 7, 2008
With the opening group games for both the U.S. men's and women's Olympic soccer teams completed, here are my initial thoughts on both:

1. Ugly, but a win's a win. It wasn't pretty, but at least the U.S. men escaped with three points against Japan in a game it absolutely had to win to stand a decent chance of emerging out of group stage. And when I say escaped, I do mean just that. Japan had several golden opportunities to score, and only some comedic "finishing" of the highest ineptitude -- including an open-goal miss from six yards out -- kept Japan off the score sheet. That said, the U.S. needs to show some improvement quickly and is still probably going to need to beat either the Netherlands or Nigeria to emerge, given that both teams will likely beat Japan by more than just one goal.

2. What I didn't like about the U.S. performance. To be honest, the U.S. was underwhelming. There wasn't a whole lot of imagination offensively, and on defense, the left side looked like a sieve at times, as the Japanese penetrated time and time again through gaps vacated by Michael Orozco. In midfield, Michael Bradley and Sacha Kljestan didn't exert much authority, failed to control tempo and didn't win a whole lot of balls, either. The one player who can provide that defensive bite in midfield is Maurice Edu, but he's been pressed into service as a central defender. On the plus side, Edu looks excellent cleaning up attacks that threaten outside the U.S. area. However, as a natural midfielder, his defensive instincts inside the penalty box leave some cause for concern -- on a different day he easily could have been called for two penalties (neither incident was a blatant penalty, but it wouldn't have surprised me to see the ref give either one).

Up top, Brian McBride was deprived of service, and Freddy Adu failed to impress in the playmaker role. You could argue that Adu was the recipient of some dubious calls by the referee, but save for one nice volley from outside the box, he was far too quiet. The few times Adu got the ball in one-on-one isolation against Japanese defenders, he failed to beat them, was too easily dispossessed on several occasions and generally looked frustrated throughout. This is a team that has struggled to score from open play all through qualifying and in pretournament exhibitions, and I don't think it's a trend we'll see being broken any time soon -- the U.S. barely created any clear-cut opportunities all game long. As for Stuart Holden's winning goal -- realistically, it was hit straight at the goalkeeper and any decent goalkeeper would/should have made that save.

3. What I did like. There were a couple of individual performances that stood out for me in what was mostly an average to below-average effort. Marvell Wynne looked composed down the right side and sure-footed in his tackling. The few times he was beaten, his immense recovery speed compensated for that. Offensively, he has improved his touch and added more width than Holden was able to provide out on the right. On the left, Robbie Rogers was the only U.S. attacker who looked menacing and the only one that showed the ability to beat the Japanese off the dribble. However, his final delivery needs work if McBride is going to be effectively utilized, but on the whole Rogers looked good. Jozy Altidore looked sharp in his brief cameo, but given the Japanese were pressing forward at the time and leaving gaps at the back, it's hard to compare his performance to McBride's.

4. What now for the U.S. women? There's no question that despite the 2-0 loss to Norway, the U.S. women will still qualify easily for the second phase. How far they will get in this tournament is another story. There are several points of concern with the women. First, although Pia Sundhage has (in theory) brought a new style of play to the team, emphasizing ball control and possession over the long ball, the fact is, the lineup is more or less the same one that failed in the last World Cup. It's hard enough to radically change a team's playing style in a few months, let alone try to do it with exactly the same personnel who are so used to playing a different way. That was borne out by the way the U.S. would regress into wishfully long desperation punts against Norway time and time again.

The question remains as to why the U.S. persists with Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd together in the same midfield -- especially when you have Aly Wagner sitting on the bench and a new team philosophy that requires a No. 10-style playmaker on the field. Wagner is the only player on this roster who is capable of providing that. If she's on the roster, play her -- if you have fitness concerns then don't select her, or at least maximize her playing time in pre-Olympic exhibitions to see where she stands.

Moving on, the U.S. needs to start a midfield of Tobin Heath and Lindsay Tarpley on the flanks, Wagner and either Boxx or Lloyd in the middle and then two out of the trio of Amy Rodriguez, Natasha Kai and Heather O'Reilly up top (the choice of Angela Hucles to start was another strange decision, to say the least).

5. Same old China. For all of its rhetoric about liberal reforms, the Chinese government acted in traditional vein by denying a visa to U.S. speedskater Joey Cheek. Cheek is president and co-founder of a collection of Olympic athletes known as Team Darfur, an organization that urges China to help make peace in the war-torn Darfur section of Sudan. The significance of all of this? Abby Wambach is heavily involved with Team Darfur, so one has to wonder if the Chinese would have denied her entry as well, had she not suffered a broken leg just prior to the Olympics.

Jen Chang is the U.S. Soccer editor for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes regularly and is a contributer to Soccernet podcasts. He joined ESPN Studio Production in 2004 and earned a Sports Emmy award, before making the move to in 2005.


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