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USA dodges Colombia's attack, in position to qualify for Olympics

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On a sweltering day in Barranquilla, with the mercury tickling the 90-degree mark, the United States took a step closer to qualifying for the Olympics with a 1-1 draw against Colombia. The U.S. came through well in a pressure-cooker first leg of the playoff for the final spot at Rio 2016’s under-23 competition.

Luis Gil, spending his first season with Liga MX’s Querétaro, put the U.S. up an early goal in the fifth minute. He latched onto a pinpoint cutback cross from Mario Rodriguez streaking down the right, side-footing it past goalkeeper Cristian Bonilla.

Colombia held the vast majority of possession but couldn’t break through a stifling U.S. back line in the first half. Forward Andrés Renteria looked the most dangerous of the bunch and certainly the most active in the Colombian attack, but his supporting cast faltered.

The second half swung even farther in Los Cafeteros’ favor. The U.S. rarely got forward, and the Americans frequently defended with a baffling combination of desperation and luck that seemed likely to end at any second. The pressure finally culminated in Colombia winning a penalty in the 67th minute, as Kellyn Acosta pulled down substitute forward Rafael Borre.

Colombia captain Juan Quintero stepped up to the spot and put his shot just out of goalkeeper Cody Cropper’s reach, low and to the left. The rest of the game passed similarly, with Colombia coming close to scoring and the U.S. somehow escaping. In the end, a draw with an away goal puts the Americans in a great position ahead of the return match on Tuesday in Frisco, Texas.

Here are three thoughts on the first leg and the U.S.’s chances moving forward:

Prudent U.S. snags a vital away goal

It certainly wasn’t the start that most expected from the Americans, going up a goal in the first five minutes on the road. Prognostications before the match focused more on achieving a surmountable result for the second leg, not jumping into the lead from the very beginning.

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However, as fans of any league with a playoff system will attest, knockout matches have a strange way of making predictions look foolish. So perhaps it shouldn’t have been that surprising when Rodríguez drove down the right and found Gil in loads of space with the cutback between Colombia’s back and midfield lines.

He took his chance well, and the U.S. had its dream start.

From there, it was a predictably defensive performance to try to escape Barranquilla with a slim lead, or at least a result that would make the away goal matter. The forwards held a deeper line of confrontation, starting near the top of the circle but receding more toward the halfway line and even deeper as the game went on. That allowed the U.S. to hold a firm line and swarm as Colombia tried to break through.

Particularly after the second-half restart, Colombia’s attack threatened the U.S. goal with alarming regularity, but it only got the penalty past Cropper. The U.S. will call it a tactically disciplined effort, Colombia will call it immensely lucky—and the truth will be somewhere in between, though the U.S. deserves major credit for its courage.

Horvath injury puts more pressure on thin back line

First, it was center back Cameron Carter-Vickers picking up an injury just before the Olympic team got together for its playoff series. Then, senior coach Jurgen Klinsmann kept John Brooks for himself, leaving the position thin. Finally, stalwart Molde goalkeeper Ethan Horvath went out at the end of the first half on Friday with an apparent concussion, leaving the U.S. with even less of its first-choice defense at its disposal.

Of course, Cropper is more than a capable deputy for Horvath. The MK Dons goalkeeper, who recently completed a move from Southampton in an attempt to get more playing time, has even been called into camp with Klinsmann’s team in the past. But Horvath’s form both in league play and for his country has been stellar in recent months.

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Defense was the biggest question mark heading into the series against Colombia, but the collective play from back to front in that regard surpassed all expectations on Friday, at least in terms of the final result. It started with the smart early shape from the forwards, holding a deeper line than usual, but Tim Parker held firm with Matt Miazga next to him, and Wil Trapp put in another mature performance as the midfield anchor.

Now, it’s a matter of whether the back line can do more of the same in four days’ time, this time on home soil.

So you’re telling me…there’s a chance?

The U.S. has been through some adversity, much of it self-imposed, in its last couple of Olympic qualifying efforts. Undeniably, the Americans should have taken care of business this time in the CONCACAF tournament rather than waiting for its chance in the playoff, the shock defeat to Honduras still a stinging memory even as the Colombia series is half-over.

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Still, the team deserves some credit for its valiant effort to make do with that poor result.

If youth national team tournaments are about gaining experience for the senior level and identifying potential players for that team, then a difficult qualifying campaign will have done just that.

If the U.S. doesn’t get to the Olympics, it will still ultimately be a failure.

Remarkably, though, it has a great chance in the second leg against Colombia on the back of its performance on Friday. Having to go through the process in this manner, that’s all coach Andi Herzog will have wanted out of a difficult first leg in South America.