KANSAS CITY, Kan. – The United States Under-23 national team needed a solid result to set the tone for their Olympic qualifying bid. They got it, at least in part, behind Jordan Morris and a couple of young center backs making their move up from the U-20 ranks.
Morris, the Stanford star and occasional US senior international who has yet to turn pro, scored twice on Thursday night at Sporting Park to lead the US past Canada 3-1 in both nations' Group A opener in the 2015 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championship.
Real Salt Lake's Luis Gil added an insurance goal from the penalty spot in second-half stoppage time for the Americans, who spent much of the match trying to add to Morris's first-minute goal.
The U.S. went up 1-0 before Canada even touched the ball, working the opening kickoff quickly down the pitch before Jerome Kiesewetter sent in a cross from the right corner, and Morris raced onto it to power a header past Montreal's Maxime Crépeau.
Kiesewetter nearly doubled the lead in the 21st minute, only to push his shot wide after a nifty cutback in the penalty area. He had a blast from close range parried away by Crépeau in the 24th minute.
After that, though, Canada began to play a more compact game, and the US found less space to operate in the attacking third. Plenty of their possessions followed a pattern of pretty footwork in the midfield or on the flanks, followed by a giveaway once the ball got into the heart of the defense.
But in the 73rd minute, as they began to press for an equalizer, the Canucks got caught out with their defense overextended – and Columbus Crew SC's Wil Trapp made them pay for it with a takeaway and a heady long ball over the top.
Morris ran onto the pass, muscled off center back Luca Gasparotto near the top of the penalty area, and calmly slotted the ball past Crépeau for a 2-0 lead.
That proved crucial to the Yanks getting all three points from the match, as a rare defensive lapse let Canada back into the game.
The Under-20 World Cup center back tandem of Cameron Carter-Vickers and the New York Red Bulls' Matt Miazga kept things largely locked down against a Canada side missing its top age-eligible threat in Orlando City rookie Cyle Larin, but poor marking on a corner kick in the 81st minute let Michael Petrasso pull one back on a near-post header past Zack Steffen.
Steffen made the start ahead of Charlie Horton, with Ethan Horvath on Europa League duty with Norway's Molde and not scheduled to join the U.S. squad until after this week's matches.
Kiesewetter also set the table for Gil's match-icing penalty when he got into the area and went down on a challenge from Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé. Crépeau went to his right, and Gil put a low shot the other way to seal all three points.
Canada next play Panama on Saturday at Sporting Park. The US will face Cuba in Saturday's late game.
Panama 1, Cuba 1
In the early game on Saturday, 10-man Panama came back to earn a draw with underdogs Cuba thanks to a second-half goal from Josiel Nunez. The Panamanians went down in the sixth minute when goalkeeper Elieser Powell's clearance ricocheted off Cuban forward Maykel Reyes and into the goal. But the Cubans -- who saw the defections of four players on Wednesday and Thursday -- were unable to hold onto the lead.
Steve Brisendine covers soccer in Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.