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U.S. men's soccer beats Japan, 1-0

August 7, 2008 | 11:40 am

U.S. player Stuart Holden (bottom center) celebrates his goal against Japan during a first round match Olympics match.

It was a small step, but at least it was taken in the right direction.

The U.S. men’s Olympic soccer team, riding a measure of luck, defeated Japan, 1-0, in Tianjin, China, on Thursday on a goal by Stuart Holden.

The victory was the first the U.S. has scored in the Olympic Games since it defeated Japan on penalty kicks after a 2-2 tie in the quarterfinals at Sydney eight years ago.

“The first game is never easy, and you never know how it is going to be,” U.S. coach Peter Nowak said on the U.S. Soccer website. “You train for three weeks and you try to find the right recipe....It was important to get the three points.”

In the second match of the day at the Tianjin Olympic Center Stadium, the favored Netherlands was held to a 0-0 tie by 1996 gold medal winner Nigeria. That left the Americans atop the group heading into their game against the Dutch on Sunday.

Holden’s goal came after the U.S. had survived at least three scares in the scoreless first half, as the technically superior Japanese team carved out several good scoring chances. Japan’s finishing let it down, however, as Masato Morishige missed an open net after a superb bit of creativity by Japan off a corner kick, and Hiroyuki Taniguchi later missed narrowly wide with a glancing header.

In the end, Japan paid the price for squandering those chances.

Two minutes into the second half, former UCLA standout Marvel Wynne broke down the right wing before cutting the ball back into the center. Japanese defender Hiroki Mizumoto’s attempted clearance kick fell to Holden, who fired a low shot that squeezed beneath goalkeeper Shasuka Nishikawa.

Nishikawa took the sting off the ball but it had enough left on it to roll over the line and send Holden, who plays for the Houston Dynamo, wheeling away in delight.

Peter Nowak The goal also caused the tightly wound Nowak to pump his fists in delight and relief. It broke a scoreless string of just on six hours for the U.S.

“My first Olympic win,” Nowak said, “There’s nothing better than that.”

After taking the lead, the U.S. was intent on defending it and did so capably, albeit with a bit of luck. 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 turned a blind eye.

Said a relieved Edu: “It was pretty intense toward the end of the game as they were pushing a lot of bodies forward. There were a lot of scrambles in the box, but the referee made the right decisions to let certain plays go on.”

Things will be a lot more hectic against the Dutch on Sunday and, as Nowak said, the U.S. needs to step it up a notch.

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

-- Grahame L. Jones

Photos: U.S. player Stuart Holden (bottom center) celebrates his goal against Japan during a first round match Olympics match on Thursday in Tianjin, China. The U.S. defeated Japan 1-0. Credit: CSPA via US PRESSWIRE. Insert: Coach Peter Nowak. Credit: USOC

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