SANDY, Utah—Qualifying for a playoff to get into a major competition is a strange thing. It means the effort, in this case the United States’ campaign to get to the 2016 Summer Olympics, wasn’t necessarily good enough, but it wasn’t necessarily too poor, either.
At least not yet.
“We had five games, four wins, and right in the most important game, we were not really prepared because we were not good enough,” U.S. Under-23 head coach Andi Herzog told SI.com on Tuesday. “It’s a little bit disappointing, but in the end, we’re still alive and now we have to beat Colombia.”
The U.S. beat Canada, 2-0, in the CONCACAF Men's Olympic Qualifying Championship third-place game after losing by the same score to Honduras in the semifinals three days earlier. The win ensures the U.S. has one last opportunity to qualify for Rio 2016, by winning a home-and-away playoff against Colombia during the March 21-29, 2016, FIFA international window.
The Americans breezed through the group stage in CONCACAF, defeating Canada, Cuba and Panama by a combined score of 13-2. They looked set for their first Olympic qualification since Beijing 2008 but instead fell to a Honduran side headed to its second successive Olympics.
“It was tough at first to handle that loss just because we’d been playing so well in the group stage,” said Jordan Morris, who scored three goals in qualifying. “[We] expected to come out and get a result in that game, and it just didn’t happen for us.”
The U.S. fell flat against a Honduran side that played with more energy and quality in every position on the field.
The Americans looked consistently frustrated with the opponent’s time-wasting tactics and endless gamesmanship.
A tournament-best attack couldn’t break through the organized Catrachos defense, and two goals on the other end were the most the U.S. gave up in one game this tournament. Nobody made excuses for it: they understood the gravity of what just occurred and even had trouble shaking it off for a couple days afterward.
And yet, the U.S. can cling to the notion that qualification is still just 180 minutes away. They’ll be grueling minutes, against a Colombian side that placed second in CONMEBOL qualifying despite beating Chile and Brazil and tying eventual champion Argentina.
“We had a great start to this qualification, but then right on this day when we had to perform the best, we couldn’t do it, and this is our mistake,” Herzog said. “[Colombia] will be a huge test for us, but at the other side, we want to qualify for the Olympics.”
The U.S. didn’t have its full complement of age-eligible players for the tournament, as clubs weren’t required to release their men for the first two games that were outside the official international window. Rather than waiting until the latter stages for a full-strength team, Herzog went with a younger group that included six players from the U.S.’s quarterfinal run at the 2015 U-20 World Cup.
Those left out included DeAndre Yedlin, who played for the senior team in the 2017 Confederations Cup playoff against Mexico on Saturday, an injured John Brooks, out-of-form Julian Green and forward Rubio Rubín. They could end up on the squad for the Colombia playoff, but the senior team plays two World Cup qualifiers against Guatemala the same week.
Whether Olympic or World Cup qualifiers take precedent will likely come down to the senior team’s situation in its group at the time. The Guatemala matches mark the last two games in the fourth round of CONCACAF qualifiers for Jurgen Klinsmann’s team.
“As we move forward, obviously we’ll have to work with Jurgen and discuss exactly the guys that come in,” U.S. assistant coach John Hackworth said.
“We feel like we have a large pool and that if we can keep pushing these guys in the right way—try to make sure they’re getting time in the first team, etc.—that we’re going to have some difficult choices to make come March. That’s what we want.”
Herzog admitted it was a risk to bring such a young group into qualifying—including 17-year-old center back Cameron Carter-Vickers, who played every minute—but the coach wanted to give them experience. That likely won’t be the case in March, though, when winning will take precedence over development for at least a week.
“We have to bring the best group,” Herzog said. “That’s how it is if you want to beat Colombia; you have to bring the best group available. For sure, it will be most of the group here, but at the end, we have to be two times on the absolute top level.”
Despite not qualifying outright, the team can find solace in the fact that it still has a chance. It’s not as simple a task as beating Honduras, but players and coaches were upbeat after Tuesday’s win.
“Unfortunately, the one game that we didn’t play well was the game that kind of mattered the most,” Morris said. “It’s a bummer that that happened, but I’m glad we got the win today. I think we’ll pull it out in March, so we’re excited about that.”
Next time, though, there won’t be any hiding behind the notion of one bad day. The U.S. will have to play well in two games against a tough opponent, or it’s not going to the Olympics, which would be a massive failure with the emphasis Klinsmann and his staff have put on it.
“If we can build on the performance and the four wins that we had here and try to eliminate that one bad day … in a home-and-away series, I think we have a good chance,” Hackworth said. “Being able to keep this dream alive and hopefully qualify in March is very important to our national team program, to this age group of players that we feel really good about.”