Crushing disappointments are all too common in soccer, for deserving teams sometimes fail to win, and last-second catastrophes can undo what transpired the previous hour and a half.
On both fronts, the U.S. men's team took a kick in the teeth Sunday against the Netherlands, which scored on a free kick in the third minute of stoppage time to carve out a 2-2 tie that left the Americans (1-0-1, 4 points) atop Group B yet not yet assured of a spot in the quarterfinals.
Substitute Gerald Sibon, after winning a free kick when fouled by Stuart Holden, drove a shot under the U.S. defensive wall and past keeper Brad Guzan to deny the Americans an historic win. Goals eight minutes apart by Sacha Kljestan and Jozy Altidore had erased a 1-0 Dutch lead and set up the U.S. to win back-to-back games in Olympic group play for the first time in its history.
Had it held on, the U.S. would have advanced regardless of how it performs Wednesday in the group finale against Nigeria (1-0-1, 4 points), which sits in second only on goals scored after beating Japan, 2-1. Instead, it faces Nigeria without Freddy Adu and Michael Bradley, both cautioned for the second time in the tournament during the second half. Adu's brilliance unhinged the Dutch numerous times. His scything dribbles split them open, and one meandering run up the middle produced a left-footed shot he crashed over the crossbar.
Yet Adu created both goals with shrewder and cruder touches, sliding a through ball that Kljestan took to the house in the 64th minute, and charging down a clearance that bounced to Michael Orozco, whose hammered square ball pinged off Altidore's hip and into the net.
U.S. head coach Peter Nowak sent out the same XI in a 4-4-2 formation that had bested Japan, 1-0, in the opening game, and during the first 20 minutes the Americans struggled to keep possession as well as their footing on a soft, chopped-up surface. When Holden switched to the flank from the middle and Adu dropped back from his forward spot, the Americans coped better with the Dutch 3-5-2 and gained a foothold in midfield.
By then, though, the Dutch were up, 1-0, after taking advantage of the U.S. left side much as Japan had done. Jonathan De Guzman found space near the corner flag and his cross dropped for Ryan Babel to head at goal. Guzan repelled the shot, but Babel beat Maurice Edu to the rebound and banged it in.
Adu came into the match later in the first half and after racing through the Dutch to shoot high, he fed an overlapping Marvell Wynne on the right side. Wynne's cross came off Kljestan, and Brian McBride teed it up for Holden to hit a searing shot that forced a fine save from Dutch keeper Kenneth Vermeer, who also smothered a follow-up shot from Robbie Rogers.
Kljestan, Adu, Holden and Rogers, buttressed by Bradley in the holding role, controlled the pace and direction in midfield and forced the Dutch team into late tackles and turnovers. Left midfielder Royston Drenthe had dominated his flank early in the match, but after Wynne overran him several times he nearly coughed up a chance when a poor header, and Sibon eventually replaced him in the 75th minute.
Early in the second half, Holden bent a free kick into a crowded goalmouth that McBride headed on frame but again Vermeer saved. McBride's ruggedness and mobility carved out space for Adu and Kljestan to link up with teammates as well as each other, and soon the Dutch were chasing shadows all over the field.
Bradley turned with the ball in his own half to set in motion the first goal. He found Kljestan, who got forward to play a pass to Adu and raced right up the middle with the return ball and the goal in his sights. He nicked the ball through the feet of defender Kew Jaliens at the edge of the box and smashed a shot over the charging Vermeer. That goal personified how important the interplay of Bradley, Adu and Kljestan may be to U.S. Soccer over the next decade.
Panicky Dutch clearances twice failed to clear the ball on the sequence that led to the second goal. Altidore had replaced Rogers after Kljestan scored, and Orozco's driven cross caromed off him after taking a slight Dutch off a defender.
Roy Makaay and Sibon came on to apply more pressure and the U.S. lost some of its composure. Adu kicked Vermeer after he'd collected a through ball to earn his caution, and Bradley dawdled too long taking a restart. Holden could have clinched the game when set free on the right flank with Kljestan racing through the middle, but Holden dragged the ball wide of the post.
Holden went in wildly to win a ball that Sibon had already slipped past him 23 yards from goal. He, too, was cautioned, and the agony he obviously felt at committing such a foul increased exponentially when a few members of the U.S. wall jumped while others didn't, and Sibon's low shot flew between McBride and Kljestan past Guzan.
The U.S. will need at least a tie in its last group match to advance unless the Netherlands can't beat Japan. It will need to replace Adu and Bradley, and it must set aside the psychological shock of being just seconds away from a quarterfinal spot.
Aug. 10 in Tianjin
USA 2 Netherlands 2. Goal: Kljestan 64, Altidore 75; Babel 16, Sibon 90.
USA -- Guzan, Wynne, Edu, Parkhurst, Orozco, Holden, Bradley, Kljestan, Rogers (Altidore, 65), Adu (Feilhaber 80), McBride.
Netherlands -- Vermeer, Zuiverloon, Marcellis (Makaay, 75), Jaliens, de Guzman, Emanuelson, Maduro, Drenthe (Sibon, 75), Bakkal, Babel, Beerens (Jong-a-Pin, 69)
Yellow Cards: USA -- Edu 54, Adu 78, Bradley 90, Holden 90; Netherlands -- Marcellis 60.
Referee: Michael Hester (New Zealand).