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Mar 23, 2008

U.S. lacks finishing touch in the final third

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The final of the 2008 CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament wasn't supposed to mean anything. Both Honduras and the United States had already clinched qualification to this summer's games in Beijing, making Sunday's match for pride only. Yet one only had to see the unbridled joy of the victorious Hondurans following their 1-0 victory, as well as the downcast looks on the American players' faces to realize what the game meant to both sides.

Yet there was another, more subtle reason for the intensity and contrasting emotions on display. This was a game that the Americans dominated for long stretches, with U.S. midfielders Sacha Kljestan, Maurice Edu, and in particular Eddie Gaven putting their stamp on the game. But like they had all tournament, the Hondurans defended resolutely, if not always convincingly. And their happiness seemed borne of an improbable victory that at times seemed miles away, while the Americans' disappointment came from losing a match they seemingly had under control.

It was in the 103rd minute when Honduran forward Georgie Welcome, presented with one of the few clear looks at goal the Catrachos had all game, launched an absolute piledriver that left U.S. goalkeeper Dominic Cervi with no chance. From that moment, a Honduran victory not only seemed likely, but destined, regardless of the considerable pressure applied by the Americans.

"We waited until the right moment for the opportunity to score, and we converted," said Honduran coach Alexis Mendoza through an interpreter. "And now we can say that we won, we won well, and we won against a great national team."

While Mendoza was rightly proud of the performance his team delivered, the Americans were once again left cursing their inability to convert clear chances, a weakness that had existed all tournament long, and one exacerbated on Sunday by the absence of Freddy Adu. Forwards Chad Barrett and Robbie Findley each missed several clear chances, with Findley's 71st minute header that crashed against the crossbar the most egregious. And while the midfield did its bit in terms of possession and defense, those players seemed oddly reluctant to pull the trigger, and the shots they did deliver never really troubled Honduran keeper Kevin Hernandez.

For American head coach Peter Nowak, his team's struggles in front of goal were more a consequence of the long hard slog to qualification, rather than Adu's absence.

"I don't think it was a drop-off [in talent]," said Nowak. "I think it was the final pass, we were a little impatient with that stuff. The final pass didn't come, and as I say, this is a sign of a lot of pressure from this tournament. We spent nine weeks together. It's a long time, and if you achieve what we did, in terms of concentration, and focus, sometimes you just don't have it."

While the emotional toll that the last two months took certainly played a factor in Sunday's result, the lack of form displayed by the U.S. forwards during the tournament will give Nowak plenty to think about in the five months that now remain until the Olympics begin in August. Not a single U.S. front line player distinguished himself in the competition, and that includes presumed go-to guy Jozy Altidore, who when finally paired up top with another forward on Sunday, didn't look much better than he had during the rest of qualifying. When one looks back on the Americans' journey to qualification, much of the credit will go to a stingy defense, some solid midfield play, and the individual brilliance of Adu.

Yet in spite of the Americans struggles in front of goal, the bottom line is that qualification was achieved, banishing the memory of 2004's failed qualifying attempt. And even as the American team trudged off to their team bus, that accomplishment still managed to shine through, if only just a bit.

"Obviously, in any tournament you want to win," said Edu. "Obviously, we're not happy to go out with a loss, but we are happy with what we have accomplished, and now we're focusing on Beijing."

Player ratings (scale of 1-10)

Dominic Cervi, 4 -- The American keeper wasn't busy, and he could do nothing to stop Welcome's overtime blast, but on the few occasions Cervi was called upon he was found wanting. His failure to corral a routine through ball in the 54th minute nearly cost the U.S. a goal, and some decisions to stay rooted to his line caused problems as well.

Hunter Freeman, 5 -- Day was cut short by an early ankle injury that forced him off after 25 minutes.

Michael Orozco, 6 -- Not quite as crisp in his tackling as he was in earlier games, and his missed challenge on Welcome that was inches late set the stage for the game-winner. His overall play was still solid, however, as was his passing out of the back.

Patrick Ianni, 5 -- Ianni just seemed a step slow all day, although he did have a vital clearance off the line in the 54th minute to keep the match scoreless. Backed off Welcome way too far on the game-winner.

Kamani Hill, 5 -- Given the way his crosses and shots were endangering the safety of fans, it's stunning to think he was once a forward. There is no faulting his effort however.

Eddie Gaven, 7 -- Was quiet in the first half, but provided a dynamic presence in the second, and nearly won the match with some remarkable runs, including a spin-o-rama that gave him a great look at goal. But like most of the U.S. attackers, his final shot left something to be desired.

Nathan Sturgis, 6 -- Started the day as holding mid and finished as left back, but performed well in both roles.

Sacha Kljestan, 6 -- Put himself about well, covered plenty of ground, and cut down on the number of giveaways. He still needed more precision in the final third, however.

Stuart Holden, 6 -- Enjoyed an active first half, and tested Honduran goalkeeper Hernandez with several well hit drives, but most were right at the keeper. Saw less of the ball after halftime as most of the attacks went through Gaven.

Chad Barrett, 4 -- Took up some good positions, but did little to squelch his reputation as a poor finisher. That said, his pinpoint cross to Findley in the 71st minute should have earned him an assist.

Robbie Findley, 4 -- Found some success making runs to the right wing, but his crossing left much to be desired, and his decision-making on the ball was at times brutal. His header off the bar will give him nightmares.

Subs:

Maurice Edu, 6 -- His day off was cut short when Freeman went down injured, but his tackling contributed to the Americans' midfield dominance.

Jozy Altidore, 4 -- On a day when he finally had a front line partner by his side, Altidore never really got going.

Marvell Wynne, 6 -- Used his speed well to nullify some Honduran counterattacks.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.