TIANJIN, China -- Nine thoughts after the U.S.'s pulsating 2-2 tie against the Netherlands left the Americans (4 points) tied atop Group B with Nigeria (4) and ahead of the Dutch (2) and Japan (0):
• What a game by the U.S. -- and what a missed opportunity for a historic victory.Peter Nowak's team fought back from a 1-0 deficit, scored two stunning goals and controlled the game against the European under-23 champs for most of the final 65 minutes, only for Holland's Gerald Sibon to hit a free kick under the U.S. wall for the equalizer in the last minute of added time. In one gut-punch moment, the U.S. went from clinching a berth in the quarterfinals to needing at least a tie against a good Nigeria team on Wednesday to be certain of advancement. It won't be easy, not least because Freddy Adu and Michael Bradley will both be suspended after receiving their second yellow cards in two games.
• The Dutch coach should probably keep his mouth shut next time. I still can't believe that Foppe De Haan was dumb enough to say before the game that "the U.S. and Japan don't have the level of Nigeria ... Nigeria is confident on the ball. They have two very good forwards. The Americans are more of a team whose players are on the same level. Nobody is extremely good. They have a good system."
Several members of the U.S. team said De Haan's comments provided excellent bulletin-board material. "I think he got the answer tonight," Nowak said afterward, acknowledging that it had gotten back to the team. Adu elaborated even more: "Me personally, I was pissed off. I'm not going to lie ... It gets to a point as a player where you just get a little tired of people always disrespecting the United States as far as saying we can't play, we can't do this, we can't do that. But we keep proving people wrong over and over."
• Few in-game tactical changes will have as big an impact as Nowak's did on Sunday. The Dutch dominated the first 25 minutes, serving dangerous crosses from the right side by three different players (Jonathan de Guzman, Roy Beerens and Gianni Zuiverloon). But the game changed when Nowak shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation, moving Robbie Rogers from the right wing to the left, Stuart Holden from the left to the center and Adu from forward to a withdrawn spot on the right side. Rogers did a surprisingly good job defending and helped reduce the pressure on the U.S.'s left side -- Holland barely had any more threats in that area for the rest of the game.
• Adu can be a creative force if he's playing in the right position. Once Adu was put in a position where he could run at defenders with his remarkable dribbling skills, he went on several slaloming runs starting in the latter stages of the first half. If Adu is stationary or has his back to the goal when he receives the ball, bigger defenders (like the Netherlands' Otman Bakkal and Hedwiges Maduro) can more easily knock Adu off it. But Nowak's 25th-minute change made Adu a lot more dangerous. "We needed to find Freddy a little bit more," said Sacha Kljestan afterward. "He's our creative guy, so we slid him out to the right a little bit, and he found some more gaps inside the field." Adu was in one of those gaps in the second half when he played a lovely pass to Kljestan for the U.S.'s first goal.
• The U.S. got struck by a plague of dumb yellow cards that could be a killer moving forward. When defender Michael Parkhurst was announced as one of the U.S.'s over-age players, I pointed out that his eerie ability to avoid yellow cards would be key in tournament soccer. But while Parkhurst hasn't come close to getting one, three of the four U.S. yellow cards against Holland were just plain dumb: Adu and Maurice Edu both drew one for foolish challenges on goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer, while Bradley got one for time-wasting before a free kick. (Even worse, Adu's and Bradley's earned suspensions against Nigeria.) Meanwhile, the U.S.'s fourth yellow of the night, Holden's late foul just outside the box, led directly to the Sibon's equalizing free kick.
• Sibon's free-kick equalizer was kind of fluky.David Beckham once told me this about taking free kicks: "Some walls, they jump, so some players hit it under the wall. But that's sort of lazy." Sibon probably doesn't care if he took the lazy way out, hitting his 93rd-minute equalizer under the unlucky jump of Kljestan and past Brad Guzan. But Sibon also admitted afterward that he wasn't even supposed to take the kick in the first place. "I was just waiting because De Guzman and Urby Emaunelson are normally the free-kick takers," he explained. "They were not sure what to do, and I said, 'I'll take it.' I just blast it on goal and see where it ends. I know if it's on-target it's hard for the goalkeeper to get the ball. And it was." Free-kick artists will cringe upon hearing that, and I'm certain U.S. fans will too.
• Jozy Altidore isn't at 100 percent. For the second straight game, the U.S.'s $10 million striker didn't start, a development that would be a major controversy if Nowak's team hadn't earned four points in those games. This time, Altidore scored just seven minutes after coming on, redirecting a screaming cross by defender Michael Orozco (who was impressive in defense and getting forward in this game). Both Altidore and Nowak maintain that Altidore's substitute role is a tactical choice, but the Villarreal striker did admit to me that his injured left ankle (which he hurt in a collison with Juan Pablo Ángel in a New York Red Bulls practice) is affecting him more than most people realize.
"It's still bothering me," Altidore said. "I get it looked at every day, just trying to get it better and better, but it seems to be something that when I get back to my club maybe I need to have someone else look at it."
• Michael Bradley is a tightly wound guy-and for the most part that's a good thing. Bradley was the only U.S. player on the podium at the postgame press conference. Usually players are far more reserved on the stage with microphones than they are in the less formal mixed zone with reporters later on. But not Bradley, who answered his two questions with emotion-laced responses that I found to be refreshingly candid and unscripted for the venue. In the first one, he was essentially exasperated with me for asking what I consider a legitimate question: Given how close the U.S. was to pulling off a historic victory, were you disappointed with the way the team handled the last 10 minutes, especially given the yellow cards earned by you, Adu and Holden?
"I'm not sure how else we should handle the last 10 minutes," Bradley said, his voice rising. "They put four forwards on the field, so I think it's pretty logical at that point that for them they've got 10 minutes to save their lives. So they're going to start throwing balls forward, they're going to give everything they have. To be honest we handled it pretty damn well until the last [minute] and we give away a free kick in a bad spot. When you have good players they can make you pay, so they did."
Bradley's second question was about how hard it would be for him to swallow sitting out the Nigeria game after picking up two "soft" yellow-cards. "I thought the first one [against Japan] was a joke ... Without grabbing him or anything, you run cleanly across him and get the ball and your guy just falls down, and somehow you end up with a yellow card," he replied. "Honestly, the one today I should have been a little smarter. At the end of the game I know the referee is going to be a little bit looking to make that call. So at that point I should know that I need to play the ball, put the ball back in quicker."
What was that? Candor in a FIFA press conference? I'm sure Bradley will be told at some point that he needs to be more diplomatic, but it was nice to hear such an honest response. It also gives me a deeper sense of the fire that Bradley has inside. Remember the near melee that took place after the U.S.'s victory over Uruguay in last year's Under-20 World Cup? Bradley was in the middle of it. You don't want him to be out of control, but the younger generation of U.S. players needs more guys with that kind of chip on their shoulder.
• Danny Szetela and Benny Feilhaber may well have to come up big against Nigeria. I don't think I'm taking a wild guess to venture that Szetela will replace Bradley and Feilhaber will take over for Adu in the starting lineup against Nigeria. Szetela in particular will have his hands full trying to clog the middle against Nigeria's supremely imposing and fast attackers, while Feilhaber might as well introduce himself to the Super Eagles' answer to Marcos Senna, defensive midfielder Sani Kaita. If Szetela and Feilhaber can meet the challenge, we might be in for a classic at Worker's Stadium in Beijing on Wednesday.
Through-balls:Marvell Wynne sure does have blow-by speed, but his skill deficiency could be a hindrance to his international career. The poor guy had a shot against Holland that went out for a throw-in ... You get the sense that Brian McBride is still trying to figure out how to play with his new teammates (and vice-versa). McBride and Adu, in particular, don't appear to be on the same page much of the time ... Got a question from a reader wondering why the U.S. isn't wearing its USSF shield on its jerseys. The answer: the IOC isn't allowing it. A team can wear its nation's flag there instead, but the U.S. has decided to go bare in that spot. Sad, isn't it, that the shield is outlawed but the sponsor's logo on the left side of the chest isn't?