NASHVILLE, Tenn. – What a difference two days make.
After a comfortable 6-0 win against Cuba in their first match of CONCACAF Olympic qualifying, the United States Under-23 squad sat alone on top of Group A. Then, the Americans suffered a surprise defeat to Canada and now find themselves needing a victory over El Salvador in their last group stage fixture on Monday night (9 pm ET; Universal Sports Network, mun2, CONCACAF.com, LIVE CHAT on MLSsoccer.com) to reach the knockout stage.
The USA are down, but certainly not out.
"Knowing this team, all the camps we've been in, when we have bad games we always respond in a big way," team captain Freddy Aud said after the loss to Canada. "We have pretty good character as a team. I think we're going to respond. I really do."
Caleb Porter's side, which lost star striker Juan Agudelo to a torn meniscus in his left knee, needs to play better than they did against the Canucks. All his players know it, and they are confident they can.
"We still have faith in ourselves and our ability, and we know we can get the job done against El Salvador," goalkeeper Bill Hamid, who looked tentative coming out for crosses in the match with Canada, said after the loss.
The question, of course, is how to do so.
Although the USA's third opponent does not have the organization to bunker down as effectively as Canada did, they will play a defensive game and look to break out on quick counterattacks. Andrés Flores, Jaime Alas and Isidro Gutiérrez were dangerous in transition against Canada in their first match and only the heroics of Canucks goalkeeper Michal Misiewicz kept that tilt scoreless.
The Americans, meanwhile, were unsettled by quick Canadian counteroffensives, so Porter may opt for Amobi Okugo as one of his three midfielders to provide defensive support. The Philadelphia Union player needs to be careful, however – he picked up a caution against Canada and another one will cause him to miss the semifinal.
In the attack, the USA need to do a better job getting the ball to the flanks. They struggled to utilize Brek Shea and Freddy Adu against Canada, opting to try to force the ball through a red wall again and again. The tactical strategy will be the same against El Salvador: Go outside, get bodies in the box and attack. All that needs to change is the execution.
It's simple now: Lose and Americans are out. Win and they earn a one-off match against Group B winner, likely Mexico, with a trip to the Olympics on the line. If the Stars and Stripes can't come out flying, well, let them tell it:
"It's the Olympics, man," said Adu. "We want to go to the Olympics. It's important for us. It's important for me, and I know how great it is. I want to get there again."
Added Shea: "I think if we can't get up for that to try to go to the Olympics, then you shouldn't be here."
The players understand what's at stake. So does their coach, and he expects his charges to respond.
"You'll see a very sharp team against El Salvador," Porter said.
They had better be. By losing to Canada, the USA lost any room for error.