NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- After the United States defeated Canada 3-0 on Thursday in the semifinals of the men's Olympic qualifying tournament, Canadian head coach Nick Dasovic was asked what he thought of Freddy Adu's ability on free kicks. He responded with a wry smile, "I hate it!" The Americans love it, however, as Adu tallied twice from set pieces to help them punch their ticket to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
That Adu donned the hero's cape was nothing new. Ever since the tournament began, the Benfica attacker has been the Americans' steadiest and highest-performing player. What was different about this match was that almost every one of Adu's teammates performed at a similar level, dominating the Canadians from the outset and winning the high-stakes match in a walk.
"I was really proud and pleased to see everything that we had discussed before this kind of tournament come to fruition," said coach Peter Nowak. "I think that from the beginning to the end, there was only one team that was going to win this game, and it was us."
The back line, looking none the worse for having jet-setter Jonathan Spector in its ranks, was rock solid, with every member performing superbly. The midfield dominated the first half to such a degree that Canada could barely get the ball out of its own half. And on a night when chances still proved scarce for Jozy Altidore, the U.S. forward found a way to help his team to victory, winning both of the free kicks that Adu converted.
As for Adu's set-piece artistry, it was simply a case of finding some common ground with his coaches.
"Peter [Nowak], myself, Lubos [Kubik], and the rest of the coaching staff stress that in those kinds of situations, you want to hit it hard, far post, on goal," Adu said, "and have enough guys making real hard runs into the box, because if the keeper doesn't touch it, then that ball is going in the back of the net."
Of course, there is irony in that statement given the occasionally testy relationship that Adu and Nowak have endured over the years. When Adu first broke in with D.C. United in 2004, it was then-head coach Nowak who insisted on doling out the teenager's playing time in small doses, and only then in roles he thought Adu could handle. Adu proceeded to publicly question Nowak's methods both during and after his time at United.
It made for a potentially prickly situation when Nowak joined Bob Bradley's national team staff as an assistant in December 2006 and was later tabbed to run the Olympic effort. But Nowak continued his mentoring role, albeit with a firm hand.
"I did understand from the beginning that for a young man like Freddy, at that time, it was a little difficult for him to understand the bigger picture," said Nowak. "I think he's started to believe not only what I've been saying, he's started to believe in his ability to change the game. Sometimes those special players have this kind of ability, but there is still hard work behind it."
That latter trait was evident from the opening whistle, with the U.S. determined to pressure the Canadians in their own half, and leaving it to the likes of Maurice Edu and Dax McCarty to win every loose ball. Marvell Wynne's shackling of forward Will Johnson also set an early tone, and the Canadian soon began a fruitless search to find space elsewhere on the field.
Such was the Americans' dominance that their 1-0 halftime lead, courtesy of Adu's strike in the 27th minute, seemed scant reward for their efforts, especially considering the sharp combinations that were on display. Yet the hosts weren't made to wait long once the second half began, with Adu curling his second free-kick goal of the night over the wall and into the Canadian net in the 48th minute.
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Canada responded by pushing more numbers forward, and while this did see them spend more time in the attacking half, the American defense responded.
"We just tried to stay organized and really limit their chances," Edu said. "They did get some balls in the box, but we did a really good job of not giving up anything."
Such an approach left the Canadians exposed at the back, and they were duly punished in the 78th minute when Sacha Kljestan finished off Holden's centering feed, who in turn had been sprung by Adu.
All that remains now is Sunday's final against Honduras, which needed penalty kicks to prevail over Guatemala in the evening's first semifinal. Yet with qualification assured, that match is for pride only. For the Americans, their sights are already fixed on Beijing, where they'll be hoping that Adu's set-piece wizardry will inspire even more hatred.
Player ratings (scale of 1-10)
Chris Seitz, 6 -- Wasn't asked to do much, but displayed solid handling on the rare occasions he was called upon.
Nathan Sturgis, 7 -- Defended flawlessly, and delivered some pinpoint crosses when he joined the attack. His calmness on the ball was also outstanding.
Michael Orozco, 7 -- The San Luis defender was barely heard from, which is a good thing if you're a central defender.
Jonathan Spector, 6 -- Won his defensive battles, but fell in love with the long ball a little bit too much, and his lack of understanding with Altidore was evident. That said, his defensive composure in the back provided a valuable boost.
Marvell Wynne, 7 -- Took Canadian danger-man Johnson completely out of the game early on, and his last ditch tackle on Tosaint Ricketts in the 73rd minute snuffed out one of Canada's few dangerous moments. Wynne also linked up well with Kljestan and Adu.
Stuart Holden, 7 -- Applied some timely pressure in the opposition half, and stepped in with some valuable steals that launched quick attacks. He also set the table for Kljestan's clinching goal.
Dax McCarty, 6 -- Provided great energy and hustle in the center of the park. He faded a bit in the second half as Canada threw more numbers into attack, but a solid night overall.
Maurice Edu, 7 -- Flat out dominated the proceedings in midfield during the first half, mostly from the defensive end, but he also found time to contribute offensively. Like McCarty, Edu was less effective in the second half, but still had an excellent performance.
Sacha Kljestan, 5 -- Had some bright moments, as he proved to be a major distraction to Canadian keeper Josh Wagenaar on Adu's first strike and he took his 78th-minute goal well. But this was mitigated by some dangerous giveaways that launched some Canadian attacks.
Freddy Adu, 8 -- Adu was always on the move to find the ball, and was a constant menace wherever he popped up. He still needs to refine his pass/dribble decision making, but gave the U.S. attack the element of surprise. His sublime free kicks spoke for themselves.
Jozy Altidore, 6 -- On a night when chances were rare, Altidore's ability to take punishment proved critical, winning both of the free kicks that were converted by Adu. His adjustment to the lone striker role is still a work in progress.
Charlie Davies, 5 -- His speed gave the Canadian defense something to worry about, but he needs to stay on his feet more.
Eddie Gaven, Robbie Findley, NR -- Brief cameos for the two U.S. attackers.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.