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US takes massive step back vs. Canada
It was supposed to be an easy win — a coming out party. The United States Under-23 men’s national team was supposed to take the field in Saturday night’s CONCACAF Olympic qualifier and bombard their Canadian counterparts on their way to a victory and another step toward the Summer Games.
Instead of a taking a step forward, the Americans took a massive step back, and an embarrassing 2-0 loss to Canada has the United States on the verge of missing the Olympics.
Canada has fresh legs and used an organized defense to smother, frustrate and ultimately shut down an American attack that was a far cry from the unit that drubbed Cuba 6-0 on Thursday.
“We knew we were going to have to be sharp to break down their numbers," United States head coach Caleb Porter said after the match, "and we knew we were going to have to be good in putting out the fires on the break, and we knew we were going to have to be organized on set pieces. We didn’t do well in any of those things.”
The Canadians set up in a 4-3-2-1 formation that frustrated the Americans' playmakers, leaving the US with only one path to create chances: working the wings. Instead of taking advantage of that route, they watched their crosses missed their marks, with runs into the penalty area failing to come at the right time.
The misfiring US attack can point to a strong Canadian defense and another standout performance from Canadian goalkeeper Michal Misiewicz for its inability to get on the scoreboard, but the Americans have only themselves to blame for the two set-piece goals the Canadians scored. On both goals, American goalkeeper Bill Hamid failed to come out and deal with crosses, and center back Ike Opara was nowhere to be found on two plays on which he could have used his strength in the air.
“I just made a mistake on the first one; mistakes happen, but you have to move forward,” Hamid said. “At the end of the day, we just can’t give away anything on set pieces.”
Hamid’s 58th-minute blunder on Canada’s opening goal by Doneil Henry put the pressure squarely on the Americans, who simply didn’t respond well. Instead of slowing the game down and looking to unlock Canada’s stingy defense, the United States began pressing too hard offensively and lost what little sharpness the offense had.
“We needed the first goal,” Porter said. “It played out perfectly for them. They hit the first goal on a set piece and now then they can sit in even more. If we get that first goal, they open up (and) the whole game’s different.”
There were disappointing performances all over the field for the United States, from Hamid and Opara in the back to Teal Bunbury’s invisible outing as the target forward in the US’s 4-3-3 formation. The central-midfield trio of Mix Diskerud, Joe Corona and Jared Jeffrey were effectively shut down by Canada’s five-man midfield.
The disappointing nights for the United States weren’t confined to the field. Canadian coach Tony Fonseca out-did Porter on two fronts, surprising him by making seven changes to the lineup that opened with a 0-0 tie vs. El Salvador, then neutralizing the American attack with a formation Porter admitted he hadn’t seen the Canadians use before.
While the Canucks had fresh legs, Porter went with nine of the starters who beat Cuba just two days earlier. Of those nine starters, only Brek Shea and Freddy Adu looked fresh. Of the two new starters, Bunbury was largely a disappointment.
The result is a loss that has turned the Olympic qualifying tournament from coronation into a death march. Now the Americans face a must-win game Monday night against El Salvador. A tie or loss eliminates the US. Porter must find the right squad to deliver that tournament-saving win.
Based on Saturday’s performances, it’s difficult to imagine Porter not starting the speedy Joseph Gyau, and with Juan Agudelo sidelined by a torn meniscus, Porter must seriously consider starting Terrence Boyd up top. Porter also may have to think about whether he can trust Hamid to put Saturday’s shocker behind him and rebound, or whether to turn to Chicago Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson.
Then there is the fatigue factor. Monday’s El Salvador match will be the third game in five days for the US. Porter may have no choice but to make a handful of changes. It will be a difficult test for a young coach as Porter tries to balance making changes with not shaking the psyche of a team still reeling from a tough loss.
Whoever Porter starts will need to quickly shake off Saturday’s disappointment. While there were clearly some shaken players on the US team after the match, the team’s veterans spoke confidently about being able to rebound against El Salvador.
“Knowing this team, all the camps we've been in, when we have bad games we always respond in a big way," Adu said. “We know what we can do, and we know what we have to do.”
Said Hamid: “We want to win. We want to beat El Salvador and we want to show we can play a style of soccer we want and get results out of it.”
A win on Monday would save the Americans, but it very likely would set up a semifinal date against arch-rival Mexico with an Olympic berth on the line.
It is a brutal path to the Olympics, but one that will tell us the truth about this US team. Is it a talented team that simply had a bad night against Canada, or is it a flawed and immature team that just isn’t ready for prime time?
We will find out soon.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FOXSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the US National Team.
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