U.S. U-23s fall to Honduras, fail to secure automatic Olympic berth

United States U-23s fall to Honduras in Olympic qualifying, which sets up a brutal path to secure spot in Rio
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SANDY, Utah — The United States U-23s are on the brink of, once again, failing to qualify for the Olympics. A 2–0 loss to Honduras on Saturday means the Catrachos will represent CONCACAF at Rio 2016, and the U.S. will have to win the tournament’s third-place game and a playoff against Colombia to join them.

Honduras opened the scoring through Alberth Elis in the 24th minute, as he pulled down a cross from Kevin Álvarez on the right wing and calmly hit his shot inside the far post. The U.S. struggled to cope with Honduras’s organized defense, leaving goalkeeper Luis López relatively untroubled throughout the first half.

López came up huge the one time he needed to, though. The U.S.’s best chance of the game fell to Cameron Carter-Vickers off a corner kick in the 64th minute, but López leapt to parry his header over the bar from inside the six-yard box.

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When Elis scored his second, in the 77th minute, it sealed the result. Frustration boiled over for the U.S., and after Jerome Kiesewetter picked up a yellow card for arguing with the referee in the 79th minute, the two managers were sent to the stands for arguing with the officiating crew.

The rest of the game passed in a series of altercations between players on each side. Jordan Morris had a goal for the U.S. marginally ruled out for offside, and Honduras was content to milk the clock at any opportunity in the last 10 minutes, its job done with qualification to Rio secured.

Here are three thoughts on the game:

Honduras’s mind games, ineffective against Mexico, flustered the Americans

After watching Honduras’s 2–1 loss to Mexico, in which Allans Vargas was sent off in the first minute and that could have featured a couple more red cards, Herzog and his players knew they were in for a physical and mental battle. They spoke before this game about managing their emotions in the face of the expected embellishment and chippy tackles from their opponents, but they didn’t manage them well enough.

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​Polster picked up an early yellow card, and Honduras kept more possession as the U.S. seemed more concerned with whether the Catrachos were going down too easy under minimal contact. Just when the Americans looked to regain control, Honduras scored its first goal, with Elis going by Carter-Vickers to slot home a shot from inside the penalty area.

This is where U.S. technical director Jurgen Klinsmann’s mandate that his team get “nastier” comes into play. It’s not about taking cheap shots at opponents, but rather being willing and able to play the game within the game that many CONCACAF teams have mastered while the U.S. plays, at times, a little too honestly.

The game played out exactly as Honduras and coach Jorge Luis Pinto wanted, except perhaps the part where the manager himself was sent to the stands. It’s always a risk with Hondurass’ fiery style, and while it blew up in the Catrachos’ faces against Mexico, they managed it well against a U.S. side that was mentally unable to cope.

U.S. struggled again to string passes through the middle

As it has all tournament, the U.S.’s midfield fell flat against an organized Honduras defense. The difference was, this time, the opponent matched the Americans’ athleticism and nullified the long balls toward forwards Morris and Kiesewetter that were so effective against Canada, Cuba and Panama.

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​Andi Herzog set his team up in a 4-4-2 with a diamond in midfield, which doesn’t lend itself well to playing an expansive, direct game. He seemed to have the players to keep possession and try to pick Honduras apart, with the opposition falling back with so many behind the ball, but they struggled with the ball at their feet beyond hitting balls into the corner for the forwards pulling wide.

Width was an issue the entire first half in the defense and attack. In the absence of true wingers, Emerson Hyndman and Matt Polster expanded too far from their central midfield roles and found themselves overrun when Honduras managed to win possession outright. That led, in turn, to Luis Gil and Wil Trapp being outnumbered in the middle and unable to effectively pressure Honduras in its build-up.

In response, Herzog brought Gboly Ariyibi off the bench in the second half and moved to a 4-3-3 with Kiesewetter on the opposite wing and Morris central. The change in shape didn’t mean a change in tactics, though, and the second half played out much as the first did.

It’s going to be much harder to qualify for the Olympics now

The proposition heading into Saturday’s semifinal was simple for the Americans: win, and they would be in the Olympics for just the second time in the last four tries. Lose, and it sets up two successive playoff matches, first against the loser of the Mexico-Canada semifinal and then against Colombia in March 2016 in Brazil.

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The necessity of beating one of South America’s best teams far outweighs the minimal benefit of traveling to the site of next summer’s tournament a few months early to get the lay of the land. It would have been much more comfortable to take care of business at home, in the stadiums many U.S. players frequent with their MLS teams.

Instead, as they did four years ago, the Americans put themselves in a tough situation to qualify. Anything can happen in 90 minutes, especially with intercontinental travel and a difficult opponent thrown into the mix.

It has to be said, though, that even winning the third-place game is no guarantee. Without Herzog on the bench and with the passionate semifinal still in the back of the U.S.’s mind, it’s going to be difficult to come out onto the same field in three days and ensure a different ending.