Make that two kicks in the teeth for the U.S. men's Olympic team, along with being booted out of the tournament in heroic yet heartbreaking fashion. Down a man for more than 90 minutes -- counting stoppage time -- courtesy of Michael Orozco's wayward elbow shortly after kickoff, the U.S. succumbed to Nigeria, 2-1, to finish third in Group B at 1-1-1. With the U.S. trailing 2-0 in the 77th minute, Sacha Kljestan banged in a penalty kick to trim Nigeria's lead in half, and in the final minutes Charlie Davies hit the crossbar with a header that could have propelled the U.S. into the knockout phase.
Instead, the Americans exit on the heels of a last-minute collapse in the second group game that cost them a win as well as two of their best players for the decisive match, in which a courageous yet futile effort that fell just short. In both games, experienced - yet young - professional players committed costly errors, mistakes that teach the harsh lessons from which blossoming professionals must learn. There were also memorable performances, displays of spirit and talent indicative of what representing your country in the Olympic Games means to the players and coaches as well as to U.S. fans.
Hopes of a medal can be weighed against the value of tough competition that hones and sharpens determination and stamina. In the short term, did the U.S. fail? Yes. The long-term benefits won't be known until 2010 and beyond.
The Americans needed a win or tie to guarantee advancement, pending results of the Netherlands-Japan match being played simultaneously. Had they not surrendered a stoppage-time goal to the Dutch in a 2-2 tie Sunday, they'd be in the quarterfinals regardless of results on the final day of group play.
Foolish yellow cards in the Netherlands game had consigned Freddy Adu and Michael Bradley to the bench through suspension. Jozy Altidore got his first start of the tournament alongside forward Brian McBride, and Danny Szetela took Bradley's spot in midfield.
The game plan, whatever it was, blew up in the third minute when Orozco, while shielding the ball from Solomon Okoronko near the touchine, jabbed him in the chest. It wasn't vicious nor vindictive, but experienced German referee Wolfgang Stark spotted it, and pulled out his red card.
Midfield Robbie Rogers slid back to cover that corner and Altidore took over his midfield slot. Adu's absence and the realignment deprived the U.S. of sufficient support for McBride and Kljestan to kickstart the attack, and sustained Nigerian possession yielded a fierce shot by Chinedu Obasi that U.S. keeper Brad Guzan turned away with a spectacular dive.
Six minutes before halftime, Chinedu Ogbuke Obasi skated past Michael Parkhurst to the goal line and cut a ball past Marvell Wynne that Promise Isaac couldn't miss and Guzan had no chance to stop. Nigeria nearly doubled its lead before halftime when Ebenezer Ajilore hit a low shot that Isaac redirected and Szetela cleared off the line.
Benny Feilhaber replaced Altidore at halftime and nearly scored into his own net when Obinna's fierce cross bounced off him towards the U.S. goal, but Guzan, going in the other direction, reached behind him to flag it down. Earlier in the half, a Kljestan cross had sailed over McBride to a surprised Holden, whose touch knocked the ball wide of the goal.
Despite trailing, 1-0, midway through the second half, the Americans were holding second place because the Dutch and Japanese were tied, 0-0, and only by winning could the Netherlands hope to advance. Dax McCarty replaced Szetela in the 69th minute, and a few minutes later came word of a penalty kick converted by Gerald Sibon, who had drove home a free kick in stoppage time to stun the U.S., and a 1-0 lead for the Netherlands against Japan.
Davies came on for Holden, but as a rapidly fatiguing U.S. players were readjusting yet again, Obinna got free on the left, cut inside as Parkhurst slipped, and lofted a shot past Guzan. The U.S. kept pressing and pressuring as Nigeria defended sloppily, and when McBride clipped a ball for Maurice Edu to chase into the penalty area, Nigerian keeper Ambruse Vanzekin took Edu down with his legs. Stark cautioned the keeper, whom Kljestan sent the wrong way while slotting home the penalty.
Twice in the final minutes Davies nearly scored the goal that would have brought a tied match and the point needed to reach the knockout phase. He twisted in the air to glance a Dax McCarty free-kick serve off the bar, and hit a low shot that Vanzekin easily collected.
As was the case in 1992 and 1996 when the U.S. failed to advance despite a 1-1-1 record, the Americans played well at times, but not well enough over three demanding matches. Many of them will be better players because of it, no matter how long the pain and disappointment lingers.
Aug. 13 in Beijing
Nigeria 2 USA 1.
Goals: Isaac 39, Obinna 79; Kljestan (pen.) 88.
Nigeria -- Vanzekin, Okonkwo, Adeleye, Ambrose, James, Kaita, Isaac (Anichebe, 72), Ajilore (Ekpo, 85); Ogbuke Obasi, Obinna, Okoronkwo (Odemwingie, 68).
USA -- Guzan, Wynne, Edu, Parkhurst, Orozco, Rogers, Holden (Davies, 77), Kljestan, Szetela (McCarty, 69), McBride, Altidore (Feilhaber, 46)
Yellow cards: Nigeria -- Vanzekin 87; USA -- Feilhaber 60.
Red card -- Orozco 3.
Referee: Wolfgang Starg (Germany)