FRISCO, Texas — The United States’s 2–1 loss to Colombia in the second leg of their Olympic qualifying playoff, which led to a 3–2 series loss on aggregate and a second straight failure to qualifying for the Games, was a familiar sight for U.S. U-23 observers. In many ways, it was the same manner in which Honduras defeated the Americans in the CONCACAF qualifying tournament semifinals, which ostensibly left the U.S. needing to win a tough playoff to get to Rio 2016.
As it often is at the highest levels, the game on Tuesday was won more on psychology than any other aspect. The U.S. fell prey to Colombia’s gamesmanship—the time-wasting before restarts, the embellishment of contact—much as it did against Honduras in October. That culminated in two red cards in the second half, first to Luis Gil for two frustration bookings five minutes apart, then to Matt Miazga for denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity as the last defender.
“It was exactly the same, but Colombia is a better technical team and has a better formation than Honduras,” head coach Andi Herzog said. “This was our problem in the qualification: When a team played real physical against us, we didn’t have any power, any assertiveness up front, and that’s disappointing.”
Herzog said he would have expected his team to learn its lesson after the 2–0 loss to Honduras, but the Americans clearly didn’t. The only statistical category in which the U.S. came close to Colombia on Tuesday was fouls, which Los Cafeteros led by a 19–14 tally.
“That’s just part of the game and something that we have to deal with and be smart in that aspect,” defender Kellyn Acosta said. “They used time: little fouls, throw-ins, subs—that’s just part of the game. They’re very mindful of that and wise to that. It kind of just frustrated us.”
Add in Colombia’s superior technical and tactical quality, and the entire series quickly shifted away from the Americans. The U.S.’s best soccer came in the first 10 minutes of both games, including Gil’s goal on the counterattack in the fifth minute in Barranquilla. But Colombia asserted itself much better after a brief period of acclimation.
Los Cafeteros controlled possession in both games, putting a barrage of shots toward the U.S. goal. The Americans scored two goals off just one shot on target, the second coming courtesy of a 57th-minute own goal from Deiver Machado in which he unwittingly looped a defensive header over his own goalkeeper.
So it wasn’t necessarily the result that bummed Herzog after the game, though he clearly would have taken a win either way. Rather, it was the manner in which the U.S. lost, relinquishing its second straight Olympic qualification chance and third in the last four cycles along the way.
“We didn’t do a good job right from the beginning,” Herzog said. “That’s why we have to say congratulations to Colombia; I think they were in both games the better team, and that’s why they deserved it. We were not able to play out of the back. We just kicked long balls. We had no power up front to shield the ball. So it was not good enough today.”
Colombia also possessed a maturity that the U.S. showed glimpses of in the first match when it only conceded on a penalty kick. The Americans defended well in the face of consistent pressure in sweltering conditions, but they never really controlled proceedings, whether with the ball or without it.
The players were also timid in the way they approached the second leg. U.S. goalkeeper Ethan Horvath was admonished by Uzbek referee Ravshan Irmatov in the first 15 minutes for taking too much time on goal kicks.
The SI Extra Newsletter Get the best of Sports Illustrated delivered right to your inbox
Another personification of that apprehension, as Herzog mentioned, was their propensity to play aimless balls out of the back in the face of pressure from the Colombians. Finally, the second-half physicality also played into the opponent’s hands when the U.S. overreacted to the gamesmanship rather than being mentally tough enough to push through it.
“We said there will be a lot of battles, tough battles, sometimes nasty,” Herzog said. “We have to be nasty too, but they don’t have to provoke us to make stupid fouls around the box. At the end, with two red cards, it’s not a good signal.”
It was a bit of a reversal of the first leg, in which Colombia looked first nervous and then desperate to get a result in Barranquilla. The early U.S. goal shocked Los Cafeteros, prompting them to pump balls forward recklessly until they got their equalizer. After that, though, a calmness set in that permeated through the second leg as well.
Colombia grew stronger and more willing to grasp the game, while the U.S. shrank.
“It was life or death, really,” Acosta said. “I think it kind of showed when they just outplayed us throughout the whole game.”