MELBOURNE, Australia — Could it be that the soccer story of these Olympic Games will not be the last hurrah of the U.S. women but rather the first hurrah of the U.S. men?
"I really think that if we play the way that we've played in the first three games we have a shot at a medal," said Danny Califf, whose powerful headed goal off a corner kick set the Americans on course for an impressive 3-1 victory over Kuwait on a rainy Tuesday night.
"If we go into the medal rounds, can we win gold? To be really honest, we can," said goalkeeper Brad Friedel, whose confident play has helped the U.S. reach the Olympic quarterfinals for the first time.
The U.S. men have competed in 12 Olympic Games since 1924 but have never advanced this far.
"We all expected to get through our group," said Landon Donovan, the Redlands teenager who made his Olympic debut Tuesday and whose 88th-minute goal clinched first place for the U.S., ahead of Cameroon, the Czech Republic and Kuwait.
"U.S. soccer's not at a point anymore where they're saying let's try to get a point here or pull off a win. We're going into every game thinking we can win it. We feel we can compete against any team here."
On a wet and cold night, with the crowd of 19,684 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground huddled under the overhang of the stands above, the Americans shrugged off the rain and took the game to the Kuwaitis, who needed only a tie to advance.
The U.S. players were faster to the ball, far more attack-minded than their opponent and, this time unlike last, finally were able to finish their scoring chances.
In short, they played with the same go-for-broke attitude the U.S. women showed when winning the gold medal in 1996 but have since started to shy away from as age has slowed the veterans.
One key to victory was the change U.S. Coach Clive Charles made half an hour into the game when he took off his big striker, Conor Casey, and replaced him with the quicker, more elusive Donovan, the 18-year-old whose goals propelled the U.S. to a fourth-place finish in the FIFA Under-17 World Championship in New Zealand last year.
"We needed small, technical and quick," said Charles, who, after the 2-2 tie with the Czechs and the 1-1 tie with Cameroon, had been the target of an angry e-mail posted on the Internet by Donovan's father complaining that his son was not being given an opportunity to play.
Ten minutes after Donovan had come into the game, the U.S. scored. Defender Jeff Agoos delivered a perfect in-swinging corner kick from the right and Califf, the Galaxy's rookie central defender, leaped to crash a header into the back of the Kuwaiti net from about eight yards.
"The first goal was a big goal for us," Charles said. "It was a great corner from 'Goose' and a terrific header from Danny. That opened the game up a little for us."
In the 63rd minute, the Americans doubled their advantage, with Chris Albright scoring from an acute angle on the left after receiving a well-timed pass from John O'Brien.
Kuwait fought back, but its players were unsettled by the conditions and lost their concentration, according to Coach Radojko Avramovik.
Still, Kuwait cut the U.S. lead in half in the 83rd minute when Bader Najem beat Friedel from close range after a fastbreak down the right flank.
Five minutes later, Josh Wolff and Donovan exchanged passes on a U.S. fastbreak up the middle and Donovan calmly slotted the ball into the net to seal the victory.
In the quarterfinals, in Adelaide on Saturday, the U.S. will play either Brazil, South Africa or Japan. Can it keep on winning?
"I feel confident that this team can perform well against whoever we play against," Charles said. "The result, we don't know. That depends on if we get lucky, if we play well, if the ball goes in for us, if the ball doesn't go in for them. But I feel we can compete against anybody."
The last word belonged to Donovan.
"We can't get too excited," he said. "We're only halfway there."
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