The U.S. Under-23 men's national team kicked off its quest to qualify for next summer's Olympics in Rio de Janeiro with a 3-1 win over Canada at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kansas, Thursday night.
Stanford junior Jordan Morris continued his tear wearing a U.S. shirt, scoring in the first and 73rd minutes, and the Americans held despite conceding off a late set piece. Luis Gil's stoppage-time penalty finished off the Canadians and cemented the three-point haul.
Panama and Cuba played to a 1-1 draw in the opening match of Group A play, allowing the U.S. to take sole possession of first place after the first set of games and get one step closer to avoiding a repeat of the 2011 Nightmare in Nashville and instead finding 2015 Redemption at Rio Tinto. Games against Cuba and Panama remain, however, before securing a trip to Utah for the all-important semifinals.
Here are three thoughts on the match:
U.S. enjoys a perfect start...
You can't begin a qualifying campaign much better than the U.S. did. Morris's first-minute goal set the tone before Canada even touched the ball. Jerome Kiesewetter (more on him below), set up the Stanford standout with a pinpoint cross from the right, and the unmarked Morris did the rest with his accurate header.
It was the full sequence that was so impressive, though. With Canada bringing high pressure, the U.S. successfully played out of the back off the opening kickoff, with center back Matt Miazga playing forward for Fatai Alashe. His one-touch flick to Matt Polster allowed the play to develop down the right flank, and Polster put Kiesewetter in position to send in the decisive ball.
For a team looking to make a statement and avoid any hiccups on the road to Rio, scoring 36 seconds in is certainly a way to do that.
...but not a perfect evening
The three points are all that ultimately matter in a qualifying tournament, but digging deeper reveals that the U.S. is not a perfect squad. For starters, Polster is not at his best position at right back, and the U.S. in general is lacking true flank options both in the midfield and the back.
Polster has been one of the revelations of the MLS season (if you haven't been watching the Chicago Fire regularly, nobody would blame you, but watch Polster in his defensive midfield role the next time you do), but shoehorning him into a right back in just his third game with the U-23s in any competition seems like a tall order, and Canada's Michael Petrasso repeatedly looked to exploit that fact.
Digging further, Canada controlled the action for numerous spans of the game, especially in the second half when the U.S. could have taken some of the air out of the ball and put the game away. That Canada mis-hit multiple quality chances certainly allowed the USA off the hook (that and record-setting MLS rookie Cyle Larin not being released by Orlando City for the qualifying campaign).
The U.S. finally did get an insurance goal through Morris, who bodied off a defender to latch onto Wil Trapp's lovely ball over the top before controlling and finishing from inside the box, and they'd need it. Petrasso was left completely unmarked by the near post on an 81st-minute corner kick, and his flicked-on header sliced the deficit in half.
The Americans may have held on to win, but there's room for improvement, and manager Andi Herzog has to know that.
Kiesewetter stands out
There are a number of players on the USA who have garnered more hype and headlines than Kiesewetter.
Morris has already made his mark on the senior team, and his legend only grows the longer he remains at Stanford. Midfielders Gedion Zelalem and Emerson Hyndman, defenders Cameron Carter-Vickers and Miazga and goalkeeper Zack Steffen all represented the U.S. U-20s this summer at the World Cup, making a spirited run to the quarterfinals before falling on penalties to eventual champion Serbia. Marc Pelosi was in Liverpool's youth system before joining the San Jose Earthquakes this season. Luis Gil and Trapp are burgeoning MLS stars.
Kiesewetter looks poised to make his own name, though. The Stuttgart product was a handful for Canada to handle going forward, creating problems down the right side and showing no fear in taking on his marks. He provided the opening assist, was responsible for keeping Canada on its heels and very nearly had an insurance goal just after the hour mark, only to be denied by Canada and Montreal Impact goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau on a close-range chance.
In the latter stages of the game, he drew a yellow card with his pace and had the confidence to nutmeg an opponent trying to dribble out of the back, with the U.S. committing numbers in defense trying to close out the match. To finish off his performance, he earned a penalty in stoppage time, again taking on a defender with no hesitation.
Kiesewetter has played in eight games for Stuttgart II in Germany's third division without a goal, but like Julian Green, Mario Rodriguez and Caleb Stanko, among others, he's a player based in Germany's lower tiers to keep in mind for the present and near future.