Before even taking the field on Tuesday for a 4–0 win over Panama, the United States knew it had won its Olympic qualifying group. The result gave the Americans a perfect record in the preliminary round, and they moved on to face the second-place team from the opposite group in a decisive Saturday semifinal.
The U.S. scored three quick goals in the second half to seal the result and a nine-point performance in Group A. Gboly Ariyibi induced an own goal from Fidel Escobar in the 51st minute before Jordan Morris and Jerome Kiesewetter, both off the bench at halftime, combined twice in the 53rd and 56th to kill off the game. Luis Gil added a penalty in the 71st minute to cap it.
Panamanian goalkeeper Elieser Powell made a couple of important early stops, including an impressive double-save that required him to get up quickly after a save on Maki Tall to tip Gedion Zelalem’s follow-up effort over the bar. Panama looked better in possession in the first half, spurred by the knowledge that it needed to win by three or more goals to qualify for the second round.
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The U.S.’s quick outburst quashed those hopes, as Los Canaleros couldn’t score seven goals in the final half-hour to overturn the result. Mexico plays Honduras on Wednesday to decide which team the U.S. will face next; El Tri and Los Catrachos are currently tied with six points atop Group B.
Here are three thoughts on the U.S.’s last match before the semifinals:
1. Andreas Herzog’s experimental lineup holds its own without impressing
With Canada’s 2–2 draw against Cuba immediately preceding the U.S.’s match in Denver, the top spot in the group was secure before the ball rolled off the kickoff. As such, the pressure was off the Americans to get any sort of result against Panama, and Herzog played a largely changed lineup from the 6–1 win over Cuba. Of course, he couldn’t have known for sure what the result would be, so it’s likely he planned the lineup in advance, and it just happened to work out that way.
Still, only four players were repeat starters from the Cuba thrashing (captain Gil, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Matt Polster and Boyd Okwuonu), with the other seven hoping to earn their places with the first-choice group for the semifinals and, ultimately, the Olympics. Surprisingly, Zelalem looks to be on the fringe after an impressive U-20 World Cup, not helped by a poor first match and being benched for the second with the U-23s.
Herzog also shifted his team from a 4-4-2 with twin strikers Morris and Kiesewetter and toward a 4-3-3 with just Maki Tall as the target man. It didn’t quite work out, as the U.S. couldn’t string much possession together in the first half despite the dominant final score.
2. Morris and Kiesewetter have been a formidable strike pairing
Those aforementioned strikers, Morris and Kiesewetter, immediately changed the game when they came on at halftime. Unlike the tenuous presence the U.S. had in the attack in the first half, with just Tall to occupy the center backs, Morris and Kiesewetter — cutting in from the right wing but often occupying central spaces — created chances immediately.
The U.S. scored three times in the first 11 minutes after the restart, with them playing a role in each goal. Both were available in the penalty area had Ariyibi’s cross not been deflected for an own goal, they combined on the second and third and Kiesewetter drew the penalty for the fourth.
The creative midfielders were expected to impress, but they have been largely flat, leaving much of the attacking impetus to the front men. Despite the caveats that it’s just the U-23s and their opponents haven’t been on the level they will face next summer in Rio, Kiesewetter and Morris have been the revelation of the U.S. effort so far, each scoring three goals in the group stage.
3. Winning the group is no guarantee, but it’s a great start
The U.S. made the 1992, 2000 and 2008 Olympics after winning its group in qualifying (and also qualified as the host in 1996), but that doesn’t mean it will waltz through the next match in Salt Lake. Especially if Mexico ends up as the second-placed team from the opposite group, it will be a true battle for one of the automatic spots in next summer’s tournament.
In 2004, the U.S. won Group A only to meet Mexico in the semifinal and lose by a convincing 4–0 score. However, that tournament was held in Guadalajara, Mexico, giving El Tri the advantage of playing at home.
For a couple reasons besides home cooking, the U.S. has more of an advantage this time should they meet again. First is the extra day of rest, as the U.S. and Canada get three full days, while Mexico and Honduras only have two.
Also, Mexico’s match will be a test and a likely emotionally draining battle between two teams hoping to draw a weaker Canadian side in the semifinals. Whichever team the U.S. ends up playing, it could well work in the Americans’ favor that they had such a relaxed match on Tuesday, while the others had to play full-strength lineups and give maximum effort to jockey for optimal positioning.