Like many teams competing at the 2008 Olympic men's soccer tournament, the USA will rely heavily on its three over-age players; goalie Brad Guzan, defender Michael Parkhurstand striker Brian McBride.
Its opponent in the Group B opener, Japan, has gone the opposite route, declining to include anyone born before the cutoff date of Jan. 1, 1985. Yet head coach Yasuharu Sorimachi, like U.S. counterpart Peter Nowak, has under-23 players with national team experience.
Japan rolled through the final phase of Asian Olympic qualifying by topping a group that included Vietnam, Qatar and Saudi Arabia while scoring seven goals and conceding only two in six games. Five of those goals, though, came against Vietnam. The team's attack has been labeled a possible weak spot though Japan won its penultimate warm-up match, 2-1, against Australia July 24.
"I think the strength of the Japanese team is their whole team, the way they work together and understand each other very well," says Nowak. "We watched them in the Toulon Tournament that we played in and their team is their biggest strength. They collectively are very strong and never give up. They know the game and the discipline it takes and at any given time they can hurt you."
Shut out in its last two warm-up matches -- 0-0 against Ivory Coast and a 1-0 loss to Cameroon -- the U.S. nevertheless has myriad attacking options in Freddy Adu, Jozy Altidore, Robbie Rogers, Benny Feilhaber, Sacha Kljestan, Stuart Holden and McBride, as well as Michael Bradley coming forward out of central midfield.
Guzan and Parkhurst will stabilize a defense that Nowak tweaked yet again in the final two warm-up games by moving Michael Orozco to left back and pairing Parkhurst withMaurice Edu in the middle. Orozco played centrally in the qualifiers yet has lined up at left back and left mid playing in Mexico for San Luis.
Edu played central defense in the CONCACAF qualifiers and handled the duties well, but the Americans may miss his range and bite in a midfield that presents Nowak with a variety of attacking styles and strengths. However, since there is no true holding midfielder in the group except for Bradley, Edu or Parkhurst can play more of a stopper role in front of the other three defenders, depending on how opponents deploy their forwards and midfielders.
"Being able to read the game better helps you play quicker, sets you apart from other players, and keeps you a step or two ahead of your opponent," says Edu. "I think as I get more experience in international games it will force me to play quicker."
On the plus side, Edu and Parkhurst not only buttress the middle in front of Guzan but their speed and anticipation provide cover for Orozco and right back Marvell Wynne. The corners will be busy, as group foes Japan, the Netherlands and Nigeria all boast dangerous flank players. Left-footed midfielder Keisuke Honda, who plays Dutch league soccer for VVV Venlo, is just one such attacker. He debuted for the national team in a 1-0 victory against Bahrain in June.
"He's a very mobile guy, he likes to move around a lot," says Bradley, who faced Honda while playing for Heerenveen. "Certainly he's a good player that we'll have to keep an eye on. I've only played against him once and on that day we beat his team so I don't think I saw everything he has in that game."
Defender Atsudo Uchida has played in four qualifiers and also represented Japan in the FIFA U-20 World Cup last summer. Japan, which tied Nigeria 0-0 in the group phase, lost to Czech Republic, 4-3, on penalties in the round of 16 following a 2-2 tie in regulation. The Czechs went all the way to the final, losing, 2-1, to Argentina, after winning a quarterfinal against Austria, which had eliminated the U.S. in the round of 16.
Uchida is one of just four Japanese players picked from the U-20 World Cup team, so while Sorimachi hasn't taken any over-age players, he isn't relying solely on younger players, either. Of Nowak's 18 players, seven played with the U-20s last year.
The first game is just one game, but not too many teams recover from an opening-game loss to advance in a tournament that takes only the top two in each group. With a tough opponent that won the European U-21 title and the 1996 gold-medal winner still to come, both teams regard this game as one they can't afford to lose.
"I saw their game against Australia on TV while we were in Hong Kong and they looked pretty good," says Adu of Japan. "We know we have our work cut out for us. At the end of the day, we have to go out there and do what we know how to do, play our game. We've got the players and the talent on this team to do well here."
GROUP B ROSTERS:
Goalkeepers:18-Brad Guzan (Aston Villa/ENG), 1-Chris Seitz (Real Salt Lake).
Defenders: 13-Patrick Ianni (Houston Dynamo), 3-Michael Orozco (San Luis/MEX), 6-Maurice Edu (Toronto FC), 15-Michael Parkhurst (New England Revolution), 2-Marvell Wynne (Toronto FC).
Midfielders:11-Freddy Adu (Monaco/FRA), 4-Michael Bradley (Heerenveen/NED), 10-Benny Feilhaber (Derby County/ENG), 7-Stuart Holden (Houston Dynamo), 16-Sacha Kljestan (Chivas USA), 5-Dax McCarty (FC Dallas), 8-Danny Szetela (Brescia/ITA)
Forwards: 12-Jozy Altidore (Villarreal/SPA), 9-Charlie Davies (Hammarby/SWE), 17-Brian McBride (Chicago Fire), 14-Robbie Rogers (Columbus Crew)
Goalkeepers:18-Kaito Yamamoto (Shimizu S-Pulse), 1-Shusaku Nishikawa (Oita Trinita)
Defenders: 4-Hiroki Mizumoto (Kyoto Purple Sanga), 5-Yuto Nagatomo (FC Tokyo), 6-Masato Morishige (Oita Trinita), 13-Michihiro Yasuda (Gamba Osaka), 7-Atsuto Uchida (Kashima Antlers), 3-Maya Yoshida (Magoya Grampus)
Midfielders:8-Takuya Honda (Shimizu S-Pulse), 12-Hiroyuki Taniguchi (Kawasaki Frontale), 10-Yohei Kajiyama (FC Tokyo), 2-Hajime Hosogai (Urawa Reds), 8-Keisuke Honda (VVV/NED), Shinji Kagawa (Cerezo Osake)
Forwards: 9-Yohei Toyoda (Montedio Yamagata), 17-Tadanari Lee (Kashiwa Reysol), 14-Shinji Okazaki (Shimizu S-Pulse), 15-Takayuki Morimoto (Catania/ITA).
Goalkeepers:1-Piet Velthuizen (Vitesse), 18-Kenneth Vermeer (Ajax).
Defenders:4-Kew Jaliens (AZ), 13-Calvin Jong-A-Pin (Heerenveen), 6-Kees Luijckx (AZ), 3-Dirk Marcellis (PSV), 5-Erik Pieters (PSV), 2-Gianni Zuiverloon (West Bromwich/ENG).
Midfielders:17-Otman Bakkal (PSV), 8-Urby Emanuelson (Ajax), 7-Jonathan De Guzman (Feyenoord), 12-Hedwiges Maduro (Valencia/SPA), 14-Evander Sno (Celtic/SCO).
Forwards:16-Roy Beerens (Heerenveen), 11-Ryan Babel (Liverpool/ENG), 15-Royston Drenthe (Real Madrid/SPA), 9-Roy Makaay (Feyenoord), 10-Gerald Sibon (Heerenveen).
Goalkeepers: 1-Ambrose Vanzekin (Akwa United), 18-Ikechukwu Ezenwa (Ocean Boys)
Defenders:15-Efe Ambrose (Kaduna United), 6-Monday James (free agent), 4-Onyekachi Apam (Nice/FRA), 5-Dele Adeleye (Sparta Rotterdam/NED), 13-Olubayo Adefemi (Hapoel Bnei Lod/ISR), 2-Chibuzor Okonkwo (Bayelsa United)
Midfielders: 12-Olufemi Ajilore (Groningen/NED), 8-Sani Kaita (Sparta Rotterdam/NED), 17-Emmanuel Ekpo (Columbus Crew/USA), 10-Promise Isaac (Genclerbirligi/TUR), 7-Chinedu Ogbuke (Hoffenheim/GER),
Forwards:16-Victor Anichebe (Everton/ENG), 9-Obinna Nsofor (Chievo/ITA), 14-Peter Odemwingie (Lokomotiv Moscow/RUS), 11-Solomon Okoronkwo (Hertha Berlin/GER).