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The final U.S. Olympic hurdle is ... Canada!
by Ridge Mahoney, March 17th, 2008 6:45AM

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As it expected, the U.S. under-23 national team faces a showdown with a border rival for a spot at the 2008 Olympic Games, yet not expected is which neighbor that will be.

Canada captured second place in Group B by blasting Guatemala, 5-0, in the opening game of a doubleheader at Home Depot Center Sunday and then sweating out every second of the Mexico-Haiti match that followed. Mexico romped, 5-1, to tie Canada on points with four (one win, one loss, one tie) but fall just short on goal difference: plus three (seven scored, four conceded) to Canada's plus four (seven scored, three allowed). One more goal for Mexico would have been enough, as the next tiebreaker after goal difference is total goals.

Canada plays the USA and Guatemala faces Honduras at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday in the semifinals. The winners go to Beijing.

The U.S. won Group A Saturday by squeezing past Honduras, 1-0, with a stoppage-time penalty kick from Eddie Gaven after Charlie Davies had banged an earlier spot kick wide of the post. Davies earned both penalties by turning sharply with the ball at his feet as Honduran defenders dragged him to the ground, and numerous other U.S. opportunities were either repelled by desperate clearances or the sharp goalkeeping of Kevin Hernandez.

Head coach Peter Nowak blended the lineups of the first two games for this match, the third in five days. Left back Hunter Freeman and right back Kamani Hill reprised their first-game starts, and central defender Michael Orozco started his second straight game alongside Pat Ianni, who had started the first game against Cuba and sat out game two.

A four-man midfield of Stuart Holden, Sacha Kljestan, Sal Zizzo and Gaven confused the Hondurans by constantly interchanging, but the swapping of positions also yielded moments of confusion defensively. Irvin Reyna found space to thread balls through to rampaging lone striker George Wilson Welcome, who kept Ianni and Orozco busy with his strength and pace.

With a spot in the semifinals secure, head coach Alexis Mendoza kept star Hendry Thomas on the bench, yet by attacking the corners and hitting accurate long balls Honduras applied sporadic pressure to the U.S. defense. Also hampering the U.S. efforts were poor touches and decisions by Kljestan, who put usually stayed centrally as the other three midfielders moved between the flanks and the middle to provide service for frontrunners Chad Barrett and Robbie Findley.

Holden and Gaven were the offensive catalysts, yet both also ranged far back to break up Honduran attacks. Dax McCarty replaced Kljestan in the 60th minute; at the same time, Davies came on for Zizzo, with Findley moving to Zizzo's midfield slot. Honduras had been dictating much of the play early in the second half, but the personnel and positional chances brought results.

Less than two minutes after the substitutions, Gaven ran onto a ball on the left wing and chipped it to the edge of the six-yard box, where Davies controlled it as Oscar Morales wrestled him down. Davies jumped up and signaled to the bench he wanted to take the kick, but while he sent Hernandez the wrong way, Davies missed the post by at least a foot.

Honduras had just enough menace in Welcome and midfielders Reyna and Rigoberto Padilla to keep the Americans off-balance with quick counters and long balls, several of which were gobbled up by keeper Dominic Cervi at the critical moments. Cervi, an elongated keeper (6-foot-6) out of the University of Tulsa, deservedly earned a shutout in his first U.S. appearance at any level with his sharp reactions, courageous challenges, and accurate throws.

Substitute Ramon Nunez, the former Dallas youth star and MLS veteran, added a bit more bite to the Honduran attack when he came on in the 69th minute and only the width of the post kept his blistering shot from giving Honduras the lead with six minutes left. Yet Nunez also ignored a wide-open Padilla calling for the ball in the middle.

Given five minutes of stoppage time, finally the Americans scored. Davies ran onto a ball from Holden and once again got inside his tackler, in this case, Quiarol Arzu, who did the hog-tie thing and drew the whistle. Gaven stepped up and with the inside of his right foot sent the ball snugly into the net as Hernandez lunged the wrong way.

Nowak left Jozy Altidore on the bench and did not include Freddy Adu in his 18-man roster for the game. Still, the U.S. took 13 shots. Rather than falling down at every nudge and eventually earning a caution as he did against Cuba, Davies stayed on his feet and drew the fouls. Both Holden and Gaven flourished in the middle going forward, but Barrett struggled with his touch and timing. He headed an excellent cross wide from just outside the six-yard box.

The Americans will have all players available for the semifinal, assuming injuries don't rule anybody out. No one is suspended. They'll have one more day of rest than their semifinal opponents and a much shorter trip, Florida to Tennessee. And their biggest rival -- and perhaps greatest obstacle -- isn't around.

"This one game is going to mean a lot, going to the Olympics and hopefully we can go in with a good mentality and come out with a victory," said Holden. "There's been a lot of preparation and now the opportunity to [go to the Olympics] is finally here. The Olympics are amazing and its something that everyone on this team wants to be a part of."

Game Summary:
March 15 in Tampa
USA 1 Honduras 0. Goal: Gaven pen. 95+.
USA -- Cervi, Hill, Orozco, Ianni, Freeman, Zizzo (Davies, 60), Holden, Kljestan (McCarty, 60), Gaven, Barrett, Findley
Honduras -- Hernandez, Arzu, D.Molina, L.Molina (Nunez, 69), Padilla, Reyna, Ruiz (Bernardez, 46), Sanchez (Simion, 73), Alvarez, Morales, Welcome.
Referee: Erico Wijngaarde (Suriname).
Att.: 10,974.

 



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