Three things we learned from USA 3-1 Canada

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KANSAS CITY, KAN. — The United States U-23 national team’s 2015 CONCACAF Men’s Olympic Qualifying Championship opener, a 3-1 victory over Canada, was everything head coach Andi Herzong could have hoped for result-wise, but plenty of improvement is still necessary as the week-and-a-half-long tournament progresses.

Three things we learned from the U.S. U-23s’ hard-fought, closer-than-the-scoreboard-says victory over Canada…

[ FULL RECAP: USA 3-1 Canada

1. Unbalanced midfield makes for a good counter-attacking team, little else

Earlier on Thursday, I tossed out the idea that a midfield featuring both Wil Trapp and Emerson Hyndman might struggle in early days, given they’re quite similar players who operate in largely the same areas of the field. For at least 50 of their 72 shared minutes on the field Thursday night, that idea proved quite prophetic.

On paper, they’re by far the most talented deep-lying midfielders in the entire youth national team player pool. On the field, though, they struggled in two key areas: 1) maintaining proper spacing when building out of the back; 2) finding and maintaining shape (a midfield diamond) after issue no. 1 reared its ugly head.

On another night, Canada makes more of their numerous counter-attacking chances that began inside the U.S.’s half of the field, and everyone’s freaking out about how much duress the backline was under all night. Without question, an unavoidable factor in the struggles of Trapp and Hyndman was the team’s complete lack of width in midfield (fellow center mids Gedion Zelalem and Fatai Alashe were often shuttled out wide), which conveniently brings up to point no. 2…

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2. Lack of natural width makes flanks the area to exploit

When I say “natural width,” I mean both in attack and defensively. Matt Polster, who’s either a defensive midfielder or center back, and Dillon Serna, who’s very much an attacking midfielder, were shoehorned into the right and left back positions respectively. Given that neither player regularly ever plays full back, it should come as no surprise that Canada created most of their chances through quick ball movement out the wings and getting behind the two makeshift defenders.

To compound the awkwardness of Polster and Serna at full back was the aforementioned lack of wide midfielders offering 1) an outlet in possession; 2) defensive cover and an ability to hold their opposite number in check.

It didn’t bite the not-so-baby Yanks on Thursday, because Canada couldn’t turn decent chances into goals, but it’s something to keep an eye on as the tournament progresses. The likes of Mexico, Costa Rica or Honduras could certainly exploit the U.S.’s narrow shape with only slightly improved finishing.

[ MORE: Get to know the current USMNT U-23 squad ]

3. Canada acquitted themselves well, look likely to get out of the group

Did I mention Canada couldn’t finish their chances? Because, well, they couldn’t. Keeping in tune with the senior U.S. team, Herzog’s side was out-possessed (much of that can be attributed to game states — a 1-0 lead after 34 seconds) and matched shot-for-shot (14-13 in favor of the U.S.).

Benito Floro, head coach of Canada’s senior side and the U-23 squad, was rightly pleased with his team’s performance — particularly in midfield — after the game. The way Canada set a high line of confrontation, pressed and swarmed the U.S. midfield should not only give American fans cause for concern, but hope to our friends to the north. If the Canucks bring the same kind of energy and commitment against Panama and Cuba, they’ll find themselves advancing from the group and playing for an Olympic berth next week.

Bonus point: Jordan Morris is the real deal. Speed, size, strength, composure — the 20-year-old Stanford University can do it all.