Obviously I owe Tony Fonseca an apology. After eviscerating his tactics last Friday when Canada drew El Salvador in desultory style, I should give credit where credit is due. He did his job magnificently against the United States.
My god. What a game. It's so rare that Canadian soccer gives me that feeling: pure, unalloyed joy. Canada is far from qualified for the Olympics and may even fall out of the semi-final, but even if Fonseca and company lose their next game 5-0 they've scored a result that will live forever. Canada beat the United States, on their home turf, at men's soccer and completely deserved it.
Canada remains second in Group A, behind El Salvador on goal differential; matters will be sorted in this afternoon's games (Canada v. Cuba, 3:30 PM PDT, live for free on Sportsnet.ca, and United States v. El Salvador afterwards live, for free, on CONCACAF TV). Cuba's been the doormat of the group, so Canada should win but they've blown these games before. Meanwhile, El Salvador is showing a lot of fight and could push the United States to the limit. An El Salvador - Canada 1-2 finish is not impossible, and if the two draw while Canada loses to Cuba we'd probably fall out of the semi-final ourselves. A combination of an American victory and a Canadian draw or better would knock El Salvador out. The pressure remains high for everybody.
It is often said that Canada, at both the senior and youth levels, gets complacent in a 4-3-3 or a 4-3-2-1, starts passing the ball around along the ground in a way that looks all professional but completely fails to break through, and then loses. Not on the weekend.
While both of Canada's goals Saturday were off set pieces, the team applied pressure to the Americans for most of the 90 minutes. That pressure kept the United States off balance and prevented them from playing the methodical game they prefer.
American youth teams have always been a bit lazy: they're more athletic than basically anybody in the world so their tactics tend towards the naive. This killed Thomas Rongen during his coaching days. The United States ought to have had a mismatch out wide, for example, but instead they had Brek Shea and Freddy Adu try to shove the ball right down Canada's throat while Russell Teibert, Andres Fresenga, and Matt Stinson enjoyed relatively quiet nights (Fresenga made some good plays in the first half, but once he'd proven he wasn't just some schmuck he was largely left alone).
Former Vancouver Whitecaps mocked the team that released them with excellent offense on a night where the senior Whitecaps struggled for goals. Randy Edwini-Bonsu was among Canada's best players until being red carded, after being substituted out, in circumstances that are still unclear. Philippe Davies assisted both Canadian goals with lovely setups and played magnificently. (Teibert, the only current Whitecap in the starting lineup, played the best game I've seem from him at left back but as I said was not attacked heavily.)
Canada's tactics were still simple, but that was fine. Edwini-Bonsu, Seattle Sounders prospect Babayele Sodade, and Uruguayan-based Lucas Cavallini gave Canada an excellent two-man front with good wing play. Edwini-Bonsu has a speed advantage over pretty much anybody and Sodade was quicker than I expected, and Canada's through balls and quick passing put these to good use.
A 2-0 win, perhaps, flattered Canada slightly. Michal Misiewicz was Canada's man of the match again (it's staggering how good he's been; if he displays that form for FC Edmonton then look out). But what did the bigger, badder, more skilled Americans do? Our central defenders were Nana Attakora and Doneil Henry, and while neither are MLS stars they're at least familiar with the likes of Shea and Adu and know better than to take their shit. There were few perilous moments.
Still, a 1-0 loss would have given Canada an advantage. A draw was almost too much to hope for. A win? A fucking win?! By two goals, no less, to give us one leg up in a possible goal-differential fight?
There are concerns up front. The injury to Sodade is worrying; he looked very good Saturday in a supporting role but injured his ACL in an accidental collision. He's certainly out for the tournament and may be out longer-term. Edwini-Bonsu is, obviously, automatically suspended for this afternoon but we don't know of any supplementary discipline yet. Cavallini is riding a yellow card and must be careful. Canada's forward corps was already uninspiring and now they're in trouble.
But Cuba is dreadful and sensible tactics should bring a Canadian win. By "sensible tactics", I mean compensating for the loss of those two forwards. A two-man front is again the way to go: Cavallini up top (under instructions to keep it simple) and Marcus Haber in behind. Aggressive wing play will help, and I'd love to see Russell Teibert get 45 minutes at LW before taking a rest if the score's in our favour. Davies (if not too tired; remember he's without a club and training on his own) and Samuel Piette could also provide some pop. Defense should be simple and focused on avoiding mistakes, which is the only way Cuba's likely to break through. Low energy consumption and quick passing from the backline should be the rule of the day.
If Fonseca repeats his mistakes of El Salvador then we might be in for nailbiting, but after his adroit adjustments on Saturday I'm feeling more optimistic than I had been. Bring on Honduras.