Jordan Morris, Jerome Kiesewetter key to United States' Olympic quals win
The United States under-23 national team claimed a 3-1 victory over Canada in its opening match of the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament. Jordan Morris scored goals either side of halftime, and while Canada pulled a goal back through Michael Petrasso, Luis Gil made the game safe with a stoppage time penalty, allowing the Americans to secure a critical result.
Combined with Panama's surprising 1-1 draw with Cuba earlier in the evening, the U.S. now finds itself atop Group A with three points. It will face Cuba on Saturday.
Here are three thoughts from the U.S. victory:
1. Morris, Kiesewetter key U.S. victory
The scarcity of genuine attacking wide players was supposed to be a weakness of the U.S. team heading into the tournament. But Jerome Kiesewetter made a mockery of that assessment less than a minute into the match. He latched onto a pass from Matt Polster and delivering an inch-perfect cross that eluded Canada goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau, allowing Morris to nod home with the game just 35 seconds old.
Both Morris and Kiesewetter continued to create havoc in the attacking third, but a combination of wayward finishing and some impressive goalkeeping from Crepeau kept the game close in the early stages.
Morris added his second in the 72nd minute, with a clinical finish after an exquisite pass from Wil Trapp.
Morris' success was expected of course. He has shown well in limited opportunities with the senior team, including a goal in a 2-0 friendly win over Mexico earlier this year. Kiesewetter's impact was a surprise, however.
The latest in a long line of German-Americans, Kiesewetter previously represented the U.S. at U-20 level, and has been attempting to break through with Bundesliga side Stuttgart since signing a contract back in 2012. After making his inaugural Bundesliga appearance last year, Kiesewetter has been playing exclusively with Stuttgart's reserve team, failing to score in eight appearances.
But on this night, Kiesewetter was quick, dynamic with his movement, and consistently dangerous in the attacking third. He won what looked to be a generous penalty in second-half stoppage time that Gil converted to put the game away, but it still amounted to an impressive performance.
There remains plenty of work to do in this tournament, but both Kiesewetter and Morris will be difficult to stop provided their teammates can provided a steady supply of opportunities.
2. U.S. strengths and weaknesses were both on display
A look at the U.S. roster prior to the match revealed a team long on technical ability, especially in the center of midfield, but vulnerable on the flanks defensively due to the lack of natural outside backs. Both traits were on display in this match.
For the first half hour, the Americans' technical proficiency was evident, with Emerson Hyndman doing plenty to dictate the tempo, and the U.S. winning the ball in the opposition half. Matt Miazga was also having success picking out the likes of Morris with long passes out of the back.
But as the match progressed, Canada improved. It's ability to win second balls in midfield provided a platform for it to carry more of the play. Canada also detected a mismatch on its left flank, as Petrasso continually ran at Polster and created opportunities. Polster was eventually booked in the 40th minute for taking down the Canadian attacker.
The U.S. survived a few scares in the second half, in particular when Anthony Jackson-Hamel and Caleb Clarke were running at the defense, but appeared to be in control when Morris netted his second of the night. At which point the U.S. made life hard for itself. A shocking bit of set-piece defending saw a wide-open Petrasso nod home a corner kick in the 81st minute. That left for a bit of bunkering down by the Americans until Gil converted his penalty.
The U.S. ultimately prevailed, but manager Andi Herzog will have plenty of issues to address ahead of the Cuba match.
3. U.S. in control of group heading into Cuba match
Prior to the match, Herzog emphasized the importance of prevailing in the opener, and not just because of the points at stake. The win now gives Herzog considerable flexibility in how me manages the remaining two games in the group stage.
As is normally the case in CONCACAF tournaments, the schedule is brutal. The U.S. has less than 48 hours to rest before facing Cuba on Saturday afternoon. Another victory in that match combined with the right result in Canada's match against Panama could see the U.S. clinch a spot in the semifinals before it faces Los Canaleros on Tuesday. That could allow Herzog to rest key players before the do-or-die semifinal a week from Saturday.
Herzog will no doubt keep his team focused on the task at hand, as well as be grateful that the first obstacle has been overcome.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.