The least popular team in the world is the one that taps Cinderella on the shoulder to tell her that her time is up.
Yet that is exactly the situation the U.S. Olympic team finds itself in entering Thursday's semifinal showdown with Canada, the Olympic qualifying tournament's surprise package. And with a trip to Beijing on the line, there can be no time for sentiment.
The Canadians exhibited some considerable skill and grit on their way to finishing second in Group B. But there is really no explanation for the ridiculous, absurd and fortuitous set of circumstances that transpired during the final day of group play Sunday.
At the beginning of the day, all Mexico had to do was beat Haiti, and get a better result than Canada, which was facing Group B leaders Guatemala. Then it would get its dream shot of facing the Americans in the semis.
Except that the Canadians took one look at the script and turned it into an episode of "The X-Files." Watching them thump Guatemala 5-0 was odd enough, especially when it looked like their second goal by Will Johnson never crossed the line, and their fourth by Tosaint Ricketts appeared to be a shanked cross that found the upper corner of the Guatemalan goal. More surreal still was the sight of Guatemala fans cheering every Canadian tally (Guatemala's distaste for the Mexican team is well known, so it probably wasn't that surprising). It meant that Mexico would now need to beat Haiti by at least five goals in order to have a chance of making the semifinals at Canada's expense.
Impossible, right? Not with Haiti playing defense like the Washington Generals. Once Mexico went up 3-1 in the second half, the Haitians, even after going down to nine men, looked like they were playing with one defender. Only the stand-on-his-head play of Haitian goalkeeper Johnny Placide, which included a saved penalty against Cesar Villaluz, kept things from getting completely out of hand.
Yet for all of their Harlem Globetrotter-like talent, the Mexicans couldn't take advantage. Paradoxically, their 5-1 victory witnessed some woeful finishing; leaving them one goal short of what was required. It left Mexican head coach Hugo Sanchez facing questions about his future, and Canadian head coach Nick Dasovic wishing he could shake Placide's hand.
"[Placide] was on fire," Dasovic said. "I don't know where he plays, but he definitely deserves a contract somewhere in the world."
The result leaves the Americans in a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand they have to be relieved not to be playing Mexico, no matter what anyone says. But a matchup against a beatable Canadian side has the words "trap game" written all over it, a fact that U.S. captain Maurice Edu knows all too well given that he has played with and against several of the Canadian players.
"[The Canadians] are a good, organized team," Edu said. "They like to get forward into the attack, and get their backs overlapping into the attack as well. We know they're not going to just sit back and try to just defend. We know they are going to come at us."
Canada is dangerous for the simple reason that it has the one thing the U.S. lacks at the moment, and that's a hot striker in the form of Johnson. The former Chicago Fire forward has yet to score for Dutch strugglers De Graafschap in 22 appearances this season. But he bagged three goals in the group phase, despite sitting out a match due to a red card, and seems certain to test the U.S. defense with his pace and tenacity.
The midfield twosome of Tyler Hemming -- Edu's teammate at Toronto FC -- and Tyler Rosenlund has also impressed, and they'll certainly have Edu's attention come Thursday.
"I know what they bring to the game," Edu said. "They're both good on the ball technically. [Hemming] adds a calming presence to the game, just switching the play and directing the traffic in there."
Despite rallying to win Group A, all is not well within the U.S. camp. Edu contends that the Yanks reached a higher level of consistency in their past two matches against Panama and Honduras. That is true, but in eliminating the valleys so evident in its opening match against Cuba, the U.S. also looks to have removed the peaks.
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|U.S. vs. Canada
LP Field, Nashville, Tenn.
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The Americans scored a solitary goal from open play during the group phase, and while U.S. head coach Peter Nowak rightly points out the U.S. was awarded three penalty kicks, such decisions always require a certain amount of generosity from the referee, an attribute that isn't guaranteed to be present in what is essentially a one-game playoff.
And no amount of solid midfield play by such players as Freddy Adu and Stuart Holden can hide the fact that there isn't a forward on the roster -- including the much-heralded Jozy Altidore -- who looks close to reaching peak form.
In previous matches, Altidore played as a lone striker, struggling with his hold-up play. For that reason, one of two things needs to happen. Either Adu and his midfield cohorts need to find a better way to support Altidore, or a speedy forward like Charlie Davies needs to be deployed alongside him, especially since Davies' pace caused problems in the last match against Honduras. That could provide Altidore with the additional space he needs.
With Sunday's arrival of Jonathan Spector from England, Nowak also faces the dilemma of what to do on defense. It seems unlikely Nowak would have made Spector travel all the way from London to sit on the bench, but the question of where he'll fit remains. Continuity and consistency in a central defensive pairing are desired traits, yet playing Spector in the middle alongside Michael Orozco risks robbing the side of the familiarity established earlier in the tournament, although it would allow Edu to move into the midfield. A spot on the outside presents less risk, but also less of an upside. It's an interesting puzzle for Nowak, to be sure.
Given the Yukon-sized chip the Canadian team carries on its shoulder whenever it plays the Americans, the match should be tougher than expected. The tournament has been fraught with upsets since day one, although the Americans have largely avoided any catastrophes so far. If the U.S. can sidestep one more land mine, a trip to Beijing will be its reward.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at email@example.com.