BEIJING – As the players on the U.S. men’s Olympic soccer team left Beijing Workers’ Stadium on Wednesday night, they could have made themselves feel better if they had wanted.
If they had been of a mind to look for positives, they wouldn’t have had to search too far, despite crashing out of the tournament in the group stage.
Even head coach Peter Nowak had said minutes earlier that the effort and performances his players put in over three games made him as proud as if they had won a gold medal.
But they didn’t go down that path. They didn’t take the escape route from misery or permit themselves consolation.
They took it on the chin and accepted that for all the ifs, buts and maybes, they just didn’t get it done.
It didn’t matter that if the referee had blown his whistle seconds earlier in the second game against Holland, the U.S. would be now be preparing for an Olympic quarterfinal match.
No one likes to see a team of hard-working young men suffer, yet it is that very pain that means this group of players might have something that could bode well for the future.
The World Cup is in South Africa in two years, and what the U.S. needs is players who care far more about winning than they do about pats on the back.
“We want to be a force when we play international events,” said Sacha Kljestan, who scored two goals in three games and was generally impressive in midfield. “We don’t just want to turn up and make up the numbers.
“That is why this is so disappointing and frustrating. I’m proud to be part of this team and proud of how we played, but to make it mean something you have to get the results.
“Plenty of these guys will be in contention for the World Cup, and we don’t want the mentality that we just want to do OK, or just make it out of the group.
“We want to be a force, and that way of thinking is something I believe has changed from the past.
“We don’t just want to be winning games in CONCACAF, we want to be a real threat to be the best team in the world.”
Kljestan and Freddy Adu were the two standout performers in Beijing, but most of the squad acquitted itself well.
The absence of Adu and Michael Bradley – both suspended – made things tough against Nigeria. Playing with 10 men for 87 minutes didn’t help much either.
Victor Obinna added Nigeria’s second with 11 minutes to go, and Kljestan’s late penalty was too little too late as Nigeria won 2-1.
The way the young Americans kept battling, though, impressed veteran Brian McBride, one of the three over-age players permitted on the roster.
“They have something about them,” McBride said. “They don’t have a lot of fear and they are very competitive.
“They have got a chance to develop together and get involved in the senior team, which some of them are already.”
Senior head coach Bob Bradley has been keeping close tabs on the Under-23s and will have a full discussion with Nowak next week to get his thoughts on the progress the players showed in Beijing.
Given Nowak’s comments following the Nigeria defeat, it is a fair chance that most squad members will get a glowing report.
“My guys are winners,” said Nowak. “They played so hard that, for me, they won the gold medal.”
Nowak is a good man and an excellent man to have in charge of a young team. He was merely trying to ease the pain of a group that probably deserved better than an early exit.
The fact that those words provide little solace should make him proud.