BARCELONA, Spain -- The torch hadn't been lighted when U.S. soccer coach Lothar Osiander ignited the first debate of the 25th Olympiad, refusing to play his leading scorer in last night's 2-1 loss to Italy.
Forward Steve Snow did not start because of a knee injury he suffered in early June, but it was widely expected that he would play. Instead, Osiander stuck to a defensive lineup, using Columbia's Dante Washington as his only forward.
The United States fell behind 2-0 in the first 21 minutes but pulled within one on Joe Moore's goal with 25 minutes left. Snow never left the bench, and afterward he snapped, "This team can't play at all without me."
"We wanted speed up front," Osiander explained. "Snow is certainly not one of our fastest players. He's also not very good on defense. I thought we'd be in trouble, as we were in the first half."
Osiander also was handcuffed by the mandatory two-substitution rule. He used both before the United States scored, due to minor injuries to defender Troy Dayak and midfielder Mike Huwiller.
In any case, the United States must defeat Kuwait and Poland to advance to the second round. Even with Snow, it probably could not have beaten Italy, the defending 21-and-under European champion.
Last night's game was the first event of the Olympics, but only 18,000 were present at 114,763-seat Camp Nou Stadium, home of the Football Club of Barcelona. The ticket takers appeared to outnumber the customers as game time approached.
The Olympics are for players 23 and under, a rule that ensures the World Cup will remain soccer's premier event. The United States will receive an automatic berth as host of the 1994 World Cup and is eager to field a competitive team.
Last night, the Americans were handicapped by the losses of three regular starters -- Snow, defender Alexi Layas (broken foot) and midfielder Chris Henderson (strained right knee).
Snow left Indiana after one season to turn pro with Standard Liege of Belgium, and he scored 10 goals in eight games during Olympic qualifying play. Osiander obviously views him as one-dimensional, but Moore, for one, said he was missed.
"When he's in the game, I do feel more confident," said Moore, who entered the game in the 25th minute and scored his goal off an indirect kick. "He always wants the ball. You can always look up and play the ball to Steve's feet."
Other players downplayed the brewing controversy -- "We knew he wasn't going to play," midfielder Cobi Jones said. "Everyone on the team is going to follow the coach's decision." Indeed, many blamed their own lack of composure for the team's poor start.
Sparse crowd or not, Jones said 70-80 percent of the players were nervous for the first 35 minutes. Their play improved as the evening progressed, to the point where a rising shot by Jones nearly tied the score late in the second half.
The shot was deflected away with one hand by leaping Italian goalkeeper Francesco Antonioli. But the Americans believed that they again demonstrated their ability to compete against top national teams.
"The impression you get growing up in the U.S. is that European soccer is godlike," Jones said. "You get over here and realize that we can play with them. We showed that the last 15 minutes of the first half and at the start of the second."
Said goalkeeper Brad Friedel: "It's not really that you're nervous and you want to go out and hide. It's more nervous energy where you want to go and play. I'd say there was a 50-50 split on our team. Some were hesitant, some not."
The Italian coach, Cesare Maldini, said the United States played with "a lot of will and power." Snow would have provided more of both. Instead, Osiander left himself open to second-guessing in a sport rarely put under scrutiny in the United States.