Last-second surprise sends U.S. past Honduras, one win from Olympics berth.
By Robert Wagman
(Sunday, March 16, 2008) -- As the United States under-23 men were cruising toward a scoreless draw with Honduras yesterday, the Americans had little concern, knowing they had already secured a berth in the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying semifinals. However, deep into an surprisingly long five minutes of stoppage time, Honduran defender Quiarol Arzu committed an inexplicably dumb foul on Charlie Davies, giving the U.S. a penalty kick.
Davies had earlier missed the target on a penalty, but Eddie Gaven smartly found the right corner of the net as time expired, giving the U.S. (2-0-1) the Group A title over Honduras (1-1-1) at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. In Thursday's all-important semifinals, the U.S. will face Group B runnerup Canada instead of first-place Guatemala at LP Field in Nashville. Guatemala will meet Honduras.
"I think we created chances, regardless of the referee's decisions," U.S. coach Peter Nowak said. "We showed spirit and pushed for a win, so it's not like the penalty kicks come from thin air or someone gives it to you as a present. I think the boys worked hard on the field and you have to give them credit."
Both semifinal winners qualify for the Summer Olympics in Beijing. Surprisingly, Mexico did not advance from Group B
Both the U.S. and Honduras held out key players, either to rest them or protect them from picking up a second yellow card and an attendant suspension from the semifinals. Nowak did not use goalkeeper Chris Seitz, defenders Marvell Wynne and Nathan Sturgis, midfielder Maurice Edu and forwards Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu.
The result was a match in which the U.S. maintained a majority of possession. While the Americans moved the ball very well at times and played with more determination than in the first two group matches, they were absolutely lacking a proper touch in their final third of the field, leaving set pieces as their major scoring threats.
The two goalkeepers each recorded five saves, none of which were much more than routine. Early, towering U.S. keeper Dominic Cervi misplayed his first challenge, but was not made to pay the price because Honduras was charged with a foul.
The U.S. defense played well, never put under much pressure and giving up almost nothing. Honduras played the entire match as if it was more than satisfied with a draw, which would have given it the Group A title. As long as the Americans did not score, the Hondurans were content to lay back, absorb the U.S. pressure, making sure they always had sufficient numbers in the defensive zone to prevent quality chances.
Over the final half hour, Davies, a reserve striker yesterday, dominated the match. Moments after he entered, he was pulled down in the Honduras box, but he shot wide ride on the subsequent penalty kick. He had several other chances before he was taken down again chasing a Patrick Ianni pass into the box in the 94th minute, leading to Gaven's heroics.
U.S. player ratings
Goalkeeper Dominic Cervi - 5.5: Shaky start but steadied up and played well in the second half.
Defender Hunter Freeman - 5.5: Steady effort, stepping up with key plays on a couple of occasions.
Defender Michael Orozco - 6: Best U.S. defender for the second match in a row. Covered a lot of ground which was needed with other backs pushing forward.
Defender Patrick Ianni - 5.5: An improved performance from the opener. Made few mistakes and was able to push the ball forward from time to time.
Defender Kamani Hill - 5: Not a natural defender, but made a better showing than in the first game.
Midfielder Stuart Holden - 5.5: Probably not as strong a match as his previous outings. but still played well.
Midfielder Sacha Kljestan - 4.5: Moved well and got himself into good positions often, but was lacking the final touch.
Midfielder Robbie Findley - 5: Got himself in position to make a big play on a number of occasions, but could not deliver the finish.
Midfielder Eddie Gaven - 6: Stayed wide most of the night and put the ball into dangerous areas, but received little help from teammates. His nice conversion of the penalty kick sealed the victory.
Forward Sal Zizzo - 5.5: Played with a lot of spirit, if not much technical skill.
Forward Chad Barrett - 5: Another player who created chances, but couldn't provide the final touch.
Midfielder Dax McCarty (60th minute for Kljestan) - 5.5: Solidified a midfield that was beginning to drift. Played more of a defensive role, but was solid.
Midfielder Charlie Davies (60th minute for Zizzo) - 5.5: Certainly played with spirit. Put himself in the right position and drew two penalties. His attempt on the first was notable for its ineptness.
SoccerTimes Player of the Match: Michael Orozco.
Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.
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