USA U-23s keep Olympic dream alive, beat Canada to reach playoff

The United States kept its Olympic hopes alive with a 2–0 win over Canada. After cruising in group play, the U-23s dealt with attacking troubles during the knockout rounds.
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SANDY, Utah — It took much longer than it should have, but the United States U-23s put 10-man Canada away, 2–0, in the third-place game of Olympic qualifying on Tuesday. The victory earns the Americans a last-ditch chance to get to Rio via a two-game playoff in March 2016 against Colombia.

Canada adopted a low posture from the start, and the U.S.’s best chances of the first half came on balls into the penalty area from the flanks and on set pieces. Center back Cameron Carter-Vickers had a header off a corner kick deflected on its way to goal in the 26th minute, and Fatai Alashe had a shot from the top of the penalty area blocked in the 39th.

After his first in the 32nd, Canadian right back Giuliano Frano picked up his second yellow card in quick succession just before halftime, which allowed the U.S. to attack with more numbers in the second half. Goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau palmed a shot wide off Jordan Morris’s foot seven minutes after the restart, and the U.S. began resorting to long shots from outside the penalty area as Canada’s low block held strong.

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Finally, in the 70th minute, one of those shots landed in the back of the net. Marc Pelosi latched onto a weak clearance from another corner kick and sent a laser off a Canadian defender on the goal line that deflected in.

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The U.S. finished the game with a few more good chances from the run of play before doubling its lead. Emerson Hyndman nearly had a similar goal in the 74th, but his deflected effort from the run of play smacked off Crépeau’s crossbar. The goalkeeper came up big on Jerome Kiesewetter in a one-on-one situation two minutes later and Pelosi again from distance with 10 minutes remaining.

However, Kiesewetter got his fourth goal of the tournament to ensure he finished as the U.S.’s top scorer in the competition. Crépeau took him down inside the penalty area, and the VfB Stuttgart forward easily put away the penalty to seal the U.S.’s playoff qualification in the 84th minute.

Here are three thoughts on the game:

1. A win is a win in a game like this

In a knockout game, teams have 90 minutes to differentiate themselves from their opponent. Whether it gets done fashionably or not, the only important thing in those situations is a win. (Just ask Greece, which won Euro 2004 with some of the most defensive tactics seen in the modern game.)

So in that sense, the U.S.’s win over Canada was a success. Nothing seemed to work in the first half, so when Frano went out just before the break, the U.S. was happy just to pump balls into the box and see if it could force one through a very defensive-minded team playing for penalties.

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Ultimately it could, and to their credit, the Americans looked much closer to extending their lead than conceding an equalizer. That doesn’t mean the U.S. should be happy with its performance, though. These are the kinds of teams it should be beating with ease, no matter how low they sit in their own half.

2. U.S. didn’t show much quality in knockout round

After the way the U.S. started this tournament, flying to a perfect record in the group behind a combined score of 11–2, the final two matches were a letdown. Qualifying’s hottest attack, behind Kiesewetter and Morris’s three goals apiece through three games, faltered badly, and the U.S. had serious trouble putting away an average opponent in Canada after losing to Honduras.

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Honduras pressured the U.S. well in their semifinal on Saturday, but Canada didn’t even have to go that far. The Canadians sat back and absorbed pressure as they have much of the tournament — even more so after going down a man — and the U.S. could barely find a way to break them down despite a 28–3 shot advantage and having 74% of the ball.

It could have been the congested schedule causing tired legs or the pressure of two must-win games after having at least a little breathing room in the group stage. The only certainty is, this wasn’t how the U.S. envisioned its Olympic qualifying tournament coming to an end, especially after such a strong start.

3. Central midfielders struggle to impose themselves again

It was a frequent theme this tournament that the American central midfielders struggled to create much from the run of play. That’s especially problematic when the squad is packed with central players and thin on depth in wide areas.

On Tuesday, the U.S. started Alashe and Wil Trapp in the middle. Trapp has been a mainstay, but Hyndman, Luis Gil, Matt Polster and Gedion Zelalem all saw time centrally as well (Polster also played right back a couple times, including on Tuesday). Among them, only Trapp seemed able to pick his forward passes consistently, though he’s accustomed to a deeper role and can’t be expected to also create in the final third.

Gil, who captained the side leading up to qualifying before yielding to Trapp, hasn’t had much playing time for Real Salt Lake and never looked that sharp for the U.S. That’s one of the biggest problems facing this side: plenty of them can keep possession going and be tempo guys, but the creative aspect in attack is sorely lacking.