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BEIJING 2008 : MEN'S SOCCER

U.S. takes control by beating Japan

August 08, 2008|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

Trust the Dutch to make things interesting.

Instead of defeating Nigeria as expected Thursday in the opening round of the men's Olympic soccer tournament, the Netherlands was held to a scoreless tie.

That gave the Dutch and the Nigerians one point each.

And the point of all that is that the U.S. has three points and unexpectedly heads the four-nation group after edging Japan, 1-0, in Tianjin, China, in its own opener earlier.

On Sunday, if the suddenly buoyant Americans sense a weakness in what was believed to be a powerful Dutch team and if they can somehow take advantage, who knows what might happen?

The U.S. men in the quarterfinals in 2008 after failing to even qualify for Athens 2004?

Against a lively and technically superior Japanese team, Coach Peter Nowak's U.S. squad rode the confidence of goalkeeper Brad Guzan, the solid play of a somewhat makeshift defense and the tireless work of striker Brian McBride to a deserved victory.

Things will be a lot tougher against the Netherlands, also in Tianjin, on Sunday.

The Dutch are two-time European under-21 champions and boast a crafty veteran striker in Roy "Phantom" Makaay, the top goal scorer in Europe in 2003. He alone could cause the U.S. defense as many fits as the Japanese forwards did for long stretches Thursday.

Japan, inspired by the play of Atsuto Uchida, created at least three clear scoring opportunities in the first half but couldn't convert.

After taking the lead on Stuart Holden's goal two minutes into the second half, the U.S. set out to defend it. Midfielder-turned-defender Maurice Edu was fortunate on at least two occasions not to be called for a penalty kick after committing fouls in the box, but Senegalese referee Badara Diatta saw no infractions.

"It was pretty intense towards the end of the game," Edu said.

Nowak said the U.S. needs to step it up a notch Sunday.

"It wasn't a perfect game from us," he said. "We still have to be more focused and disciplined."

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Jones reported from Los Angeles.

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grahame.jones@latimes.com

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