Anyone who had bet that the U.S. women would be at the bottom of their group after one game at the 2008 Olympic Games and the U.S. men would be at the top figured to cash in, and cash in big.
Yet so stand the American teams following a 1-0 victory by the men in Tianjin over Japan Thursday, a day after Norway stunned the U.S. women, 2-0. Both teams return to action over the weekend, with the women facing Japan on Saturday and the men going up against the Netherlands, the European U-21 champion, on Sunday.
Stuart Holdenscored shortly after the second-half kickoff and the Americans deservedly held that 1-0 advantage to the final whistle, dodging a late penalty decision when defender Maurice Edu tugged on the jersey of Yohei Toyoda as they raced for a long ball.
Up to that point, Edu had been nearly impeccable, breaking up plays with timely interceptions and sure tackles, and occasionally stepping into midfield to deliver good passes. Japan appealed for a penalty when he bodied Hiroyuki Taniguchi off the ball during a goalmouth scrum in the 80th minute, but a much stronger case could be made for his tug on Toyoda that referee Badara Diatta also ignored.
Right back Marvell Wynne played nearly as well on the flank, and not only nicked away a cross that could have been a goal but set up Holden's strike in the 47th minute. Holden played a ball wide to Wynne, who burst past Yuto Nagamototo hit a low cross that caromed off the knee of captain Hiroki Mizumoto and out to Holden, who struck a low shot from just inside the area that squeezed under the left hand of goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa and slithered over the goal line.
The U.S. certainly benefited from good fortune on several occasions, two of them during the first half. Japan turned a seemingly innocuous short corner kick into a great chance when Masato Morishige ghosted in at the far post and got on the end of a low cross from Atsuto Uchida but stabbed his shot off-target. On another corner four minutes before halftime, Uchida curled a cross that a wide-open and blatantly offside Hiroyuki Taniguchi stooped to head wide of the post.
Robbie Rogers, who had been rather quiet on the left midfield flank, took on more of the attacking load in the second half, and by forcing Uchida and midfielder Keisuke Honda to defend limited their attacking forays. Honda and Uchida had unhinged the left corner of the U.S. defense several times, leaving Michael Orozcostranded without sufficient help from Michael Parkhurst and Holden.
Yet if ever a cliché had its basis in fact, the Americans earned their luck, and held on despite tiring noticeably in the final minutes. Brian McBride battled tirelessly up front, holding up balls to find teammates with return passes while absorbing punishing hits with nary a complaint. Sacha Kljestan didn't deliver a killer ball but struck several accurate and perfectly weighted passes, and broke up numerous plays with interceptions and tackles, including one near his own goal line in the final minutes. Freddy Adu took a caution for complaining about numerous hard tackles he believed to be fouls, yet plugged away regardless and took on defenders when played into space.
Since his days of coaching D.C. United, Peter Nowak has emphasized that in addition to skill and flair, soccer demands running and fighting. On a damp field that occasionally came up in chunks, there were times when they simply had to dig in.
For most of the 90 minutes, the Americans moved and switched positions competently, and when they were occasionally breached by energetic Japanese interplay, they replied with a timely clearance, determined tackle, or the quick, brave goalkeeping of Brad Guzan. Credited with just two saves, Guzan intervened on another half-dozen occasions by smothering dangerous balls or punching away crosses.
Guzan, too, got a break to keep his sheet clean. In the final seconds of five stoppage-time minutes, Parkhurst mis-headed a ball straight up into the air and Guzan went for it a half-second late. Substitute Tadanari Lee got to there first but his header under pressure cleared the crossbar.
The U.S. will need more polish and guile in their remaining group games against the Netherlands and Nigeria, whose 0-0 tie Thursday leaves the Americans atop Group B. Yet being just good enough is worth the same three points as winning in a romp.
Aug. 7 in Tianjin
USA 1 Japan 0.Goal: Holden 47.
USA --Guzan, Wynne, Edu, Parkhurst, Orozco, Holden (Feilhaber, 83), Bradley, Kljestan, Rogers (Szetela, 87), Adu, McBride (Altidore, 74).
Japan -- Nishikawa, Mizumoto, Nagatomo, Morishige, Uchida. K.Honda, Kajiyama (Lee, 64), Taniguchi, Kagawa (Okazaki, 84), T.Honda, Morimoto (Toyoda, 73)
Yellow Cards: USA -- Adu 51, Bradley 64, Guzan 87; Japan -- K.Honda 73, T.Honda 77.
Referee: Badara Diatta (Senegal).