ZARAGOZA, Spain -- The U.S. Olympic team's dream of pulling American soccer out of its rut ended quietly last night. Its moral victory in tying Poland, 2-2, lost its meaning when Italy beat Kuwait to claim second place in Group A and advance to the next round.
This team -- virtually the same one that won the national under-23 competition at the 1991 Pan American Games -- had hopes of becoming the first U.S. contingent to get out of the first round of the Olympics, but it was unable to outrun its country's legacy of mediocrity in the sport.
The U.S. team's 1-1-1 record matched that of the 1984 Olympic team. Its six goals are an American Olympic record. The United States is 3-11-5 in 10 Olympic appearances, however, and nothing seen here should provide hope that the record can be evened any time soon.
"I think that, without a professional league, we have arrived at the point where we won't keep on growing," said Lothar Osiander, the U.S. coach.
"Our players are without a professional week-in, week-out grind. This is the level you can expect. This is as good as this team can play."
The U.S. team did what it apparently thought it had to do: Score three points in three games. In yesterday's crucial game it scored two goals, thought to be necessary to add to the team's goal differential.
But Italy's 1-0 win against Kuwait ended the U.S. chance. Poland (2-0-1) won the group, and Italy (2-1) advanced in second place.
The U.S. team had filed a protest on Tuesday, noting that the rules call for all of the tournament's matches to be played at the same time, even if they are played in different cities. The protest was denied, and the United States played at 7 p.m. here, and Italy played at 9 p.m. in Barcelona.
The time difference would give Italy two potential advantages: Its game would be played in cooler weather, after the sun went down, and its game began after the U.S. game was over, allowing the Italians to know exactly what they had to do to advance.
"The organizing committee didn't adhere to the rules," Osiander said.
Osiander could not have guessed that three points would not have sent the team to the second round.
"In most tournaments, three points will get you to the next round," U.S. defender Alexi Lalas said. "Like most of the things with U.S. soccer, we have to do it the hard way or the interesting way."
Lalas' presence in the game illustrated his point. Lalas began the tournament with a broken foot and did not play in the first two games. Lalas played only the first half, but his size -- 6 feet 3 -- provided a buffer between his goal and the taller, more physical Polish forwards. Several times the Polish attackers found themselves alone in front of the U.S. goal, but rushed their shots and missed a half-dozen excellent scoring chances.
The Americans likewise had chances and converted first. Erik Imler scored in the 20th minute. He dribbled around a defender and scored from inside the area. Marek Kozminski evened the score 10 minutes later, knocking a rebound past goalkeeper Brad Friedel.
Andrzej Juskowiak scored Poland's second goal.
Imler set up Steve Snow for the second U.S. goal, in the seventh minute. Snow scored on a header off Imler's centering pass.