NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Christmas has long since passed, but Canada used a festive formation to take a giant step towards qualifying for the Olympic Games on Saturday night.
A shock 2-0 victory over the strongly fancied United States at LP Field put Canada at the top of Group A in CONCACAF qualifying and in position to reach the London Games thanks to a defensive but mightily effective system known as the "Christmas Tree."
The tree-looking formation (with a single striker at the top) provided the backbone for a famous victory that featured goals from Doneil Henry and Lucas Cavallini. A victory over a weakened Cuba on Monday night would not only clinch first place in Group A for Canada but it would also leave it just one win away from an Olympic berth.
Wave after wave of American attacks were repelled by a stubborn and tenacious backline and some excellent goalkeeping from Michal Misiewicz. Misiewicz , who now plies his trade with NASL side FC Edmonton following six years bouncing around the European leagues, was the USA's nemesis and took delight in frustrating both the home players and their increasingly agitated supporters.
"It is always fun to play in someone else's backyard and shut the fans up," Misiewicz said. "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."
Canada had shown little cause for optimism in its opening Group A clash – a 0-0 draw with El Salvador on Thursday. That result kept the team in contention for the semifinals but did nothing to indicate it could upset the well-stocked Americans, who boasted highly regarded players such as Freddy Adu and Brek Shea.
The CONCACAF tournament's two finalists earn the right to be a part of the 16-team field in London comprising under-23 squads with each side allowed to field three over-age players.
Canada came into the contest with a clear game plan of shutting down the USA's attacking firepower, and it worked. Despite the trickery of Adu, Shea and second-half sub Joe Gyau, the Americans were unable to find a way through.
Both Canadian goals came against the run of play and off Philippe Davies crosses. Henry rose highest to a corner kick to head home the first in the 58th minute, while Cavallini slipped between a static defensive line to seal the victory with a close-range header with seven minutes left.
Canada had reason to savor the special and unexpected triumph. Widely tipped to exit the competition at the group stage, Canada is now in a position of strength. The only blip on an otherwise joyous night was when Randy Edwini-Bonsu was sent off in the final moments for foolishly issuing a crude gesture at the referee.
Canada is clearly focused on its own campaign and despite Cuba having suffered a 6-0 defeat to the USA and a 4-0 setback against El Salvador, coach Tony Fonseca was refusing to take Monday's game for granted. Even so, there must be a shred of extra joy in the Canadian camp at having put such a touted USA side in its place and in real jeopardy of missing out on the Summer Games.
Captain Freddy Adu, the only member of the USA 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 against El Salvador 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.
"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's character, after this night, is beyond question and if the ultimate dream of Olympic qualification is realized, this may go down as the night Fonseca's team came of age.
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