Maurice Edu of the U.S., right, fought for the ball with Chinedu Ogbuke Obasi of Nigeria during their match on Wednesday.
There were three avenues open for the United States men’s Olympic soccer team to advance to the quarterfinals, but it was forced to navigate a treacherous route through Nigeria with a busted headlight, a flat tire and no transmission.
Nigeria won Group B by defeating the United States, 2-1, and the Netherlands defeated Japan, 1-0, sending the American team home disappointed, with plenty to think about.
Nigeria had defeated Japan 2-1, and drew 0-0 with the Nertherlands. They topped the group with seven points.
It was bad enough the United States was playing without central midfielder Michael Bradley and the attacking midfielder Freddy Adu , both suspended. But in the fourth minute, United States defender Michael Orozco was ejected for elbowing forward Solomon Okoronkwo in the sternum while battling for a loose ball in the midfield. It was an innocuous enough tussle for the ball, out of danger for both teams, and the elbow did not appear to be delivered with enough force to knock Okoronkwo to the ground as dramatically as he fell. But it was deliberate and the United States was down to 10 men with a long way to go.
“The whole lineup changes, the whole mentality just goes in the trash,” United States Coach Peter Nowak said after the game. “I think maybe the referee rushed the decision to show Michael the red card.”
Nowak, who said he did not see the play, was quick to move on from the red card and the game, instead focusing on what he described as a bright international future for many members of the under-23 team. The only one more eager to move past this game was Orozco.
“I’m really not going to think about that anymore,” Orozco said about the red card. “Life goes on. Now I just have to think about what’s coming up next, and that’s my club team. I can’t turn back, I just got to keep going forward.”
But with Orozco missing from the left back position, it was difficult for his teammates to move forward against a highly skilled Nigerian team. With a gap at the back of the American defense, Nigeria began attacking the Americans’ left flank. Okoronkwo’s fleet dribbling and rhythmic one-two passes with forwards Victor Obinna and Chinedu Obasi Ogbuke created numerous opportunities for Nigeria, which became more menacing as the half progressed.
The United States tried to save energy and expedite the clock, but its lack of urgency yielded an extra two or three seconds to the Nigerian players to size up crosses or attempt long-range shots. Still, the Nigerians would have preferred four of five seconds, often losing the ball by attempting an extra dribble or an errant shot.
Nigeria was persistent and in the 39th minute, Ogbuke received a pass at the top-right of the United States penalty area. He had been giving defender Marvell Wynne fits on the right side, and he smoothly beat Wynne and Michael Parkhurst, rushing to the end line to feed Promise Isaac an easy pass to slot home for a goal.
“If you’re missing a man, you’ve got to work a little bit harder,” Wynne said. “It was difficult with the way they attacked us so hard. Defending the whole time, it was hard to get anything going offensively.”
With a one-man advantage, Nigeria did not let up until halftime.
At the break, Nowak used some replacement parts, inserting midfielder Benny Feilhaber and removing striker Jozy Altidore , who was ineffective in the first half.
Nigeria started the game with three defenders, but adopted a more defensive posture in the second half to protect its lead, preferring to counterattack, which it did at every opportunity. When Obinna scored in the 79th minute, it was not a surprise.
Nowak made two other substitutions for the United States, inserting Dax McCarty for Danny Szetela and Charlie Davies for Stuart Holden. Davies ran directly at the Nigerian defenders and McCarty’s passes helped open up holes for his teammates. Then, in the 87th minute, the United States was awarded a penalty kick when Brian McBride chipped a ball to Maurice Edu who was dragged down in the box. Kljestan converted. The United States pressed and a minute later, a McCarty free kick was headed off the bar by Davies, prompting the United States bench to jump to its feet.
A bizarre and desperate back-and-forth during four minutes of added time saw United States goalkeeper Brad Guzan come off his goal line repeatedly to play like a sweeper. Despite running in alone, Nigeria’s forwards could not score.