NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The United States' qualifying campaign for the London Games turned from a gentle stroll into a do-or-die test of will and nerve on Saturday night.
A 2-0 upset loss to Canada at LP Field in Group A of the CONCACAF regional qualifiers left a USA men's side – one flush with talent such as Freddy Adu and Brek Shea – facing the previously unthinkable possibility of missing out on the Summer Olympics.
Goals from Doneil Henry and Lucas Cavallini condemned the Americans to a miserable night that left them needing to beat El Salvador on Monday to reach the CONCACAF semifinals. Even then, progress would likely be only as the second-place finisher in Group A, setting up a potential showdown with rival Mexico.
Only the two finalists can book their tickets to London. Failure at this juncture would be a disaster for a U.S. squad that believes it has a real chance of making an impact at the Games.
Captain Freddy Adu, the only member of the team to play in Beijing four years ago, insisted he would issue a stern reminder to his colleagues about exactly what is at stake before they take the field on Monday.
"It's the Olympics, man. We want to go to the Olympics," Adu said. "It is important for us. It is important for me because I have been there, I know how great it is and I want to get there again. I really think that we've got a fire lit under ourselves now so we've really got to respond.
[ Slideshow: Canada downs U.S. 2-0 in qualifying tournament ]
"That's going to be a very big test for us and we will see what we are made of. We have pretty good character as a team. And you'd better believe it, 100 percent, that I will be reinforcing it."
Canada came into the contest with a clear game plan to shut down the USA's attacking firepower, and it worked. Despite the trickery of Adu, Shea and second-half sub Joe Gyau, the home side was simply unable to find a way through.
From Canada's perspective, it was a classic smash-and-grab raid. Their method involved long periods of tough tackling and uncompromising defense, but when the opportunities came, they took them.
Both goals came from Philippe Davies crosses, with Henry rising highest on a corner kick to head home the first in the 58th minute and Cavallini slipping between a static defensive line to seal it with a close range header with seven minutes left.
Coach Caleb Porter has done a fine job with USA's under-23s since taking over, but all that progress will mean nothing if the ultimate goal of Olympic qualification is allowed to slip away. The Olympic men's tournament features squads of under-23 players with each team allowed three members who are above that age limit.
Porter, on this occasion at least, had little answer to the Canadians' tactical approach and the "Christmas tree" formation that allowed them to clog up the midfield and deny the U.S. room to breathe. If the USA is going to make its way to London, it will now have to do it the hard way.
Canada, though, could savor this night as a special and unexpected triumph. From being widely tipped to exit the competition at the group stage, it now has the chance to seal the top spot in Group A by beating a weakened Cuba on Monday.
"It is always fun to play in someone else's backyard and shut the fans up," said Canada goalkeeper Michal Misiewicz, who made a string of impressive saves. "It is a bit easier being the underdog, all the pressure is on them. It is a great rivalry between us and the USA. It is always nice to prove people wrong."
For the vanquished Americans – namely Porter, who is trying to build a program; Adu, who is looking for a shot at redemption; and Shea, the emerging star who is trying to cement a reputation – there is much work to be done. The dismal nature of Saturday's defeat means public confidence in them will have nosedived. Now it is their turn to prove some people wrong.
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