Nowak had just 16 players available for the U-23 Concacaf Championship final following the releases of Freddy Adu, Jonathan Spector, Charlie Davies and Sal Zizzo to their European clubs. Hunter Freeman, Kamani Hill, Pat Ianni, Eddie Gaven, Robbie Findley, Chad Barrett and Dominic Cervi returned to the starting lineup for the Americans, who despite connecting more passes and outshooting Honduras, 23-9, succumbed to a spectacular strike by George Wilson Welcome in the 103rd minute.
Both teams qualify for the Olympic soccer tournament and if past procedure is any clue, there's no distinction during the draw - to be held April 20 in Beijing -- between the regional champion and the runner-up. And only by a stoppage-time penalty kick had the U.S. beat Honduras, 1-0, in the Group A finale eight days previous, so this result added an extra dose of satisfaction for the Hondurans, who also blanked Guatemala in their semifinal before earning an Olympic berth on penalties.
Welcome collected a long ball well outside the box and the U.S. defenders in position, but a high bounce on his first touch prompted Michael Orozco to challenge clumsily and late; after Welcome evaded Orozco, he exploited the time and space to crash a right footed shot high past Cervi's desperate lunge and into the top corner.
Honduran keeper Kevin Hernandez stymied the U.S. on a few occasions but once again, as had been the case in the group phase against Cuba and Honduras, the Americans shot weakly, inaccurately, or both.
Hernandez's defenders blocked a fair share of shots yet Barrett, to cite just one example, set up teammates for chances with nice touches but blazed a great feed from Stuart Holden a yard off-target and headed a corner kick no closer. Barrett provided the best U.S. chance of the game in the 71st minute with a curling cross from near the right-wing corner flag.
Findley jumped well to head it downward, but the ball bounced up, kissed the crossbar, and dropped in front of the goal line to be cleared out for a corner.
Sacha Kljestan used the ball neatly and effectively in his own half of the field, yet most of his crucial touches in the attacking third ran awry. He and Findley missed connections several times, but only Kljestan could have atoned for his poor shooting, epitomized by a free kick in regulation stoppage-time that hit a Honduran in the stomach. His only well-hit shot thudded off an opponent.
Strong approach work by Gaven and Holden either fizzled out on the final pass or wound up shot in the stands. Hill pushed forward encouragingly to join the attack and served a couple of good balls, but one left-footed shot skewed out for a throw-in, and a second effort bisected the far post and the corner flag. Hernandez saved only five of the 23 American shots, and on one occasion parried a low Maurice Edu drive that was going wide of the near post.
"We were a little bit impatient with our game, the final pass didn't come," said Nowak. "It's the sign of a long preparation for this tournament. We spent nine weeks together. It's a long time and if you achieve what we did, in terms of concentration, focus on a certain pass, we just didn't have it."
Ianni bailed out Cervi in the 53rd minute when the keeper came out to collect a ball and instead of diving on it and smothering it, somehow fumbled it. Luis Alfredo Lopez nicked the ball away and shot on frame, but Ianni blocked it while standing on the line and the Americans were able to withstand a follow-up shot by Marvin Sanchez.
Adu, who finished as top scorer with four goals in three games, earned a spot on the Best XI named by the CONCACAF Technical Committee. Edu, Orozco, and Dax McCarty joined him, with Kljestan named honorable mention;
Between now and August, dozens of names will be in the mix, with three who are to be determined drawing the most notice. A striker, an attacker, a midfielder, a defender, a goalkeeper, mix and match, who knows?
"Life goes on," said Nowak. "We will have another five months to create the group which will compete in the Olympic Games. We'll see how the group is going to be, we'll see how the draw is going to be and then we'll prepare ourselves for the Olympic Games."
U-23 CONCACAF CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
March 23 in Nashville, Tenn.
USA 0 Honduras 1.
Goal: Welcome 103.
USA - Cervi, Hill, Orozco, Ianni, Freeman (Edu, 26,) Holden (Wynne, 89), Kljestan, Sturgis, Gaven, Barrett (Altidore, 80), Findley.
Honduras - Hernandez, Arzu, Molina, Norales, Lopez (Guity, 69), Padilla, Reyna, Nunez (Solorzano, 115), Sanchez, Morales (Ruiz, 43), Welcome.
Shots on goal: 6/3
Corner kicks: 9/4
Yellow cards: USA - Holden 68, Wynne 119, Ianni 120; Honduras - Molina 20, Sanchez 45, Ruiz 83.
Referee: Joel Aguilar (El Salvador)