NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The United States U-23 team knew they would have to break down a defense-oriented Canada in their Group A match in CONCACAF Olympic qualifying on Saturday night. But Caleb Porter admitted the Canucks bunkered down even more than he and his staff anticipated, as the Americans were shocked 2-0.
"They set up in Christmas tree, a 4-3-2-1, and it's not a shape they've used," Porter said in the postgame press conference. "That's a shape you use to really stop a team. They did that to shut down. Essentially, we were three vs. five in the middle.
"If a team is going to play that way, you have to beat them wide, and I don't think we created enough," he added later. "I don't think it had anything to do with our three [midfielders] struggling, it was more just the alignment. We knew it was going to be difficult to penetrate up the center channel."
And it was. Mix Diskerud, Joe Corona and Jared Jeffrey — a trio that looked so strong against a weaker Cuba club in their group opener — struggled to find time and space. Add a couple early counterattacks that, according to Porter, "unsettled [the team] psychologically," and Canadian manager Tony Fonseca had himself a recipe for an upset.
The plan was not without its risks. By using the “Christmas tree” formation against the USA's 4-3-3, Canada conceded two-on-one opportunities on the wings. But the US, who looked out of sorts on the night, were unable to capitalize during the few forays down the flank that they managed to produce. Brek Shea overhit a number of crosses and Teal Bunbury's runs were too often mistimed.
"I didn't know if it was going to go near or if it was going to go far," Sporting Kansas City’s Bunbury, who started in place of an injured Juan Agudelo, said. "For the most part, I felt like I was the only guy in the box."
Bunbury, pinched between the two centerbacks and two midfielders, did not have room to operate and neither did the US midfield. Attempting to exploit the weakness in Fonseca's formation, Porter urged his charges to play wider. He inserted Joe Gyau at the half in an effort to stretch the width of the field. The USA were better after the break but continued to misfire in the final third.
"We didn't look sharp today," Freddy Adu said. "It doesn't matter what the other team does. We always worry about ourselves. We just didn't look sharp. Maybe we were tired from the first game."
Porter only made two changes from the lineup that started against Cuba. Canada, on the other hand, trotted out seven new players after an uninspiring 0-0 draw with El Salvador. Fonseca's decision caught the USA off-guard.
"We were a little surprised when we saw the start sheet, and they had seven new guys in the lineup," Porter said. "But that didn't change our approach. Credit to Canada. They put some fresh guys in there. They sat in and made it difficult on us."
Too difficult in fact during a 90-minute stretch when the USA were far from their best. The Canadians did not play a pretty game, but they got the result. And for the US, it means they must get a win in their final match against El Salvador on Monday (9 pm ET).