BEIJING -- The U.S. men's soccer team is out of the Olympics after its 2-1 loss to Nigeria on Wednesday. And while the Americans did plenty of commendable things in this tournament -- gutting out a 1-0 win over Japan, controlling the second half against the Netherlands in a 2-2 tie, refusing to accept a 2-0 deficit with 10 men against Nigeria -- the cold-truth headline has to be this:
U.S. MEN WASTE CHANCE FOR OLYMPIC GLORY WITH RASH OF FOOLISH CARDS.
The U.S. was already in trouble heading into the Nigeria game thanks to the yellow-card suspensions of Freddy Adu (its most creative player) and MichaelBradley (the U.S. player with the best pedigree). Both suspensions had been triggered by unwise late-game yellows against Holland: one for Adu's overly aggressive challenge on the Dutch goalkeeper and the other for Bradley's time-wasting before a free kick.
Then there was Stuart Holden's yellow-card foul in the last minute of stoppage-time against the Dutch, which allowed Gerald Sibon's free-kick goal to rip a quarterfinal berth from the U.S.' hands.
But defender Michael Orozco's third-minute red card for elbowing Nigeria's Solomon Okoronkwo on Wednesday took the U.S.'s epidemic of dumb cards to new and baffling heights.
"It changed the game completely," said U.S. coach Peter Nowak.
Make no mistake, the 22-year-old Orozco's expulsion was deserved. You can't cock your arm and elbow a player in soccer and expect to get away with it, especially when a referee like German Wolfgang Stark is standing right next to you. To make matters worse, it was Orozco's inexperienced left back replacement, Robbie Rogers, who would lose Promise Isaac in the U.S. box on the first Nigerian goal.
All the while Adu and Bradley watched in growing horror from a box in the stands at Workers' Stadium -- first as the U.S. fell behind Nigeria and then as the Netherlands vaulted ahead of the Americans with a penalty-kick goal in the 73rd minute of its 1-0 win over Japan in Shenyang. "It's the worst feeling I've had yet as a professional after losing in a tournament," Adu said afterward.
Wearing oversized headphones through the mixed zone after the game, Orozco refused to answer repeated questions from SI.com.
Yet the U.S. rallied despite being down a man, creating four solid goal-scoring chances in the first 15 minutes of the second half but failing to convert. Nigeria's Victor Obinna doubled the advantage with a 79th-minute goal, but the U.S. nearly pulled both goals back in a torrid finish. Sacha Kljestan buried a penalty kick in the 88th minute after Maurice Edu was brought down in the box, and substitute forward Charlie Davies slammed a header against the Nigerian crossbar in the 90th minute that would have put the Americans through to the quarterfinals had it gone in.
"I thought it was going in," Davies said afterward. "I thought I made a good connection with the ball."
Nowak waited until the 77th minute -- and only after the Dutch had gone ahead in Shenyang -- to bring Davies into the game, a curious (and conservative) decision considering the U.S. needed to push forward for the equalizer and goal-differential didn't matter. (A 5-0 loss would have made no more difference than a 2-1 loss.)
"That's what I thought [too]," Davies said. "I know guys were dead at halftime. I think it would have made it a lot easier for our guys to have a guy up top who's really fast who when they're in trouble they can just knock it forward and I can get in behind [the defense]. I think I really would have been able to help the guys out. It's just unfortunate that I wasn't able to get my chance."
When I asked Nowak about the delay bringing on Davies for Holden, he confirmed that he only made the move at all because he'd learned Holland had taken the lead on Japan.
"We want to keep Stuart on as much as we can because of his free-kick ability and give Charlie the time to go for the last 20 minutes," Nowak said. "So you never find the right answer for that. As a staff, we will look at different scenarios right before the game, and I think that was the time to bring on Charlie."
Nowak was a mixed bag in this tournament. His in-game tactical changes against the Netherlands were a masterstroke, but his decision to give much more time to Brian McBride than Jozy Altidore produced few positive results.
Most of all, Nowak was unable to instill a sense of discipline on a team that desperately needed some. And it wasn't just about the blizzard of yellow and red cards, either: Several U.S. players made it a habit to bellyache far too much to the referees, not least Adu, Rogers, Orozco, Bradley and Benny Feilhaber. I'm still trying to figure out what exactly justifies this sense of entitlement.
Yet instead of discussing those issues after the game Nowak spoke lovingly of how hard "my boys" competed and even compared the evening to "1980 Lake Placid." (Huh? Seriously?)
In the end, you can't do a postmortem on this U.S. men's Olympic team without noting that it created some moments of unexpected magic (especially in the second half against the Netherlands), controlling a quality opponent with the sort of skill-based soccer that could bode well for future U.S. World Cup teams (as soon as 2010, but more likely in '14).
"I want people to know that we're not far away from doing well in tournaments like this," said Kljestan. "We're getting close, and I think with a couple of fortunate bounces in this tournament we would have been through to the quarterfinals sitting pretty. So I'm very disappointed in the way things ended, but I want people to know that we're getting close, and when the World Cup comes around we hope to do great."
All the same, there was a familiarity to the postgame discussion that reminded me of the U.S.'s elimination loss to Ghana in the 2006 World Cup. Much of the talk in the U.S. camp centered on Orozco's red card ("The referee maybe rushed the decision to show Michael the red card," Nowak said) and the various unlucky turns that befell the U.S. team in these three games. ("We didn't see many good bounces or good fortune or good decisions, but that's soccer," said McBride.)
Part of that talk was due to reporters' questions, of course, but after hearing so many excuses for the U.S.' first-round exits over the years, it would have been refreshing to hear somebody say: "All the red- and yellow-cards showed our inexperience. We didn't get it done. We need to learn from this. End of story."