Americans looking ugly so far

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The U.S. men's under-23 national team should accomplish its Olympic qualifying mission by beating Canada on Thursday night, but the memories of its jittery and unconvincing CONCACAF campaign will dampen any bold predictions of success in Beijing.

Few critics will have been convinced by the fractured performances that Peter Nowak's group has put together over the past week.

Guatemala's successfully orchestrated plan in Group B to eliminate Mexico has landed the Americans the plum semifinal draw against their neighbor from the north, Canada, which is no better than sixth-best out of the eight tournament teams.

A loss to Canada in Nashville would be just as unlikely as it would be embarrassing. Yet when the dust has settled, it will be fair to suggest that, while this crop of U.S. youngsters are blessed with bountiful individual talent, there is not yet any great sense of cohesion as a team.

Even if Nowak's side goes on to win the tourney final – a meaningless affair as the top two teams both reach Beijing – one could dispute the claim that the Americans are the best in the region.

If not for the fact that Guatemala's defeat in its final group game offered the double incentive of pushing hated rival Mexico closer to elimination and avoiding a semifinal against the host nation (surprise, surprise, the Guatemalans lost 5-0), then the U.S. would be preparing for a tough showdown against the Mexicans with a trip to China at stake.

Given the standard the Americans displayed in their dismal 1-1 draw against Cuba and 1-0 victory over a Honduras team already assured of a semifinal spot, elimination would have been a serious possibility.

Instead, with a fully fit squad, no suspensions and the welcome addition of West Ham's Jonathan Spector, the U.S. should experience few problems against Canada.

"This one game is going to mean a lot," said midfielder Stuart Holden of the Houston Dynamo. "There is the chance to go to the Olympics and hopefully we can go in with a good mentality and come out with a victory.

"There's been a lot of preparation and now the opportunity is finally here. The Olympics are amazing and it's something that everyone on this team wants to be a part of.

"Thinking about the possibility of representing our country in Beijing is going to give us a little bit of extra motivation."

None of the U.S. players have played particularly badly so far, but as a unit, they have struggled to find much rhythm and momentum.

With players such as Jozy Altidore, Freddy Adu, Sacha Kljestan, Holden and several others, there is no shortage of ability. If the team had maximized its potential in qualifying, it may now be spoken about as genuine medal contenders.

However, serious improvement will be needed to have a chance for success in Beijing. Perhaps the do-or-die nature of the Canada game will spur a greater sense of urgency.

"It is all or nothing," U.S. defender Kamani Hill said. "That makes it a different mentality from the group."

Peter Nowak better hope so.