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USA stumbles on Olympic quest
by Ridge Mahoney, March 12th, 2008 6:45AM

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A disappointing 1-1 tie with Cuba in the opening game of the CONCACAF Olympic qualifiers leaves the Americans tied with the Cubans in second place and pondering changes borne by practicality more than necessity. Freddy Adu marked an opening period of USA dominance by curling home a shot in the 14th minute but a Cuban revival and a moment of laxity in the American defense enabled Yordany Alvarez to drive a low ball that Roberto Linares redirected past keeper Chris Seitz three minutes before halftime.

Despite controlling much of the second half, thanks to the inclusion of Sasha Kljestan and better attacks prompted by the back four, the Americans couldn't get another ball behind Jose Manuel Miranda in Cuba's goal.

Honduras sits in first place by virtue of beating Panama, 1-0, with a very late goal by Hendry Thomas in the first game of a doubleheader in Tampa, Fla. With another round of Group A games set for Thursday, and fatigue shaping the selection decisions of Coach Peter Nowak, his task is further complicated by the need to turn superiority into maximum points.

Sharper finishing would have meant victory. The USA outshot Cuba, 19-6; Adu hit the post twice and skimmed two other low blasts just wide; and at least three good opportunities to score on headers weren't exploited.

Jozy Altidore, who started the match as the lone forward in a 4-2-3-1 formation before taking a crack to the back and coming off at halftime, scuffed his one clear chance. Yet his prowess and presence so occupied Cuba's central defenders that Adu, playing as the central man in a trio strung across midfield with holding mids Dax McCarty and Maurice Edu in support, bossed the match in the first half.

After just 55 seconds Adu hit the post with a bending left-footed shot but got his angle and swerve right 13 minutes later after playing a corner kick to Robbie Findley. With the return pass he whipped a shot that Charlie Davies evaded at the last moment, and it slipped between Miranda and the far post.

Miranda turned away two more sharp Adu efforts as his teammates slowly clawed their way back into the match, and in the final minutes of the half a somewhat tired USA midfield couldn't close down a Cuban push forward. Alvarez found space in the zone assigned to left back Hunter Freeman, and when Pat Ianni couldn't deal with the resultant low cross, Linares steered the ball into the net.

At halftime Sacha Kljestan replaced Altidore, joining Edu, Adu and McCarty in midfield in a 4-4-2 formation, with Davies and Findley - who had been playing as wingers bracketing frontrunner Altidore - moving up top. McCarty, very useful and tidy on the ball if not always strong and shrewd enough challenging for it, continued to find teammates with insightful, accurate balls, and Adu found space to test Miranda.

Chad Barrett came on for Davies, whose three flops eventually yielded a caution, in the 61st minute. He gave the Americans more heft and height and ability to hold the ball, yet his best touch was a delicately flighted cross to the far post in the 70th minute that dropped toward Findley, only for substitute defender Loanni Cartaya to head it out of danger. Earlier, Adu had scorched the Cuban offside trap to send Findley through all by his lonesome but Miranda easily blocked his tepid shot.

Right back Kamani Hill, who got forward occasionally but like counterpart Freeman didn't always defend smartly, hit a cross that Barrett banged into the net, but this time the Cuban offside trap worked and the flag went up. Linares earned a second caution, unjustly, by kicking a ball into the net in the aftermath of a close offside decision. The Americans launched a final offensive with the man-advantage, but with the final chance of the match, Adu bent a free kick just off-target.

Group A play resumes Thursday. Cuba plays Honduras and the Americans meet Panama, a nation that has troubled the USA this decade in World Cup qualifying and Gold Cup play.

There are options for Nowak. Right back Marvell Wynne might get a run, midfielder Stuart Holden could add zip and zeal to the midfield flanks, attacker Sal Zizzo sat out because of an injury, defender Michael Orozco can hit pinpoint passes out of the back. If Altidore is healthy he can utilize chances that went squandered in the first game.

In 90 minutes the Americans created enough opportunities to win three games. Good goalkeeping frustrated them, yes, but just as often they self-destructed. Their hiccup game has come and gone with just one point to show for it. There's no more margin for error.

 



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