Optimistic USA U-23s expecting different second leg vs. Colombia

After conceding three quarters of the possession and defending for their lives, the USA is hoping to control more of its Olympic playoff second leg vs. Colombia.
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FRISCO, Texas—It will be a different game Tuesday night. Or at least, that’s what United States Under-23 head coach Andi Herzog insisted on Monday, ahead of the second leg of the Olympic qualifying playoff against Colombia, carrying a 1-1 draw with a vital away goal into Toyota Stadium (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2).

“Defensively, if we do the same job like we did in the first game but not dropping too deep … then we will get our opportunities,” Herzog said in his pre-game press conference. “We don’t want to sit back and just counter. That’s not what I expect from my team. I want to be dominant in possession, too, and we have to show that we are real good soccer players in the U.S., too, not defending like the second half in Colombia.”

Luis Gil scored a surprise goal for the U.S. on a fifth-minute counterattack through Mario Rodríguez on the right side. That was the only shot the U.S. put on target the entire match, though, as Colombia finished with a 18-5 shot advantage and 6-1 on goal. Jordan Morris did strike the crossbar from distance with the outside of his right foot in the second half, but the field tilted decidedly in Los Cafeteros’ favor the longer the match progressed.

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The temperature hovered near 90 degrees in Barranquilla on Friday, requiring water breaks midway through each half as the humidity also rose to 70%. The U.S.’s attack shrank, especially without the ability to bring on fresh legs, as goalkeeper Ethan Horvath needed an unexpected substitution in the first half after a head injury. Horvath ultimately was fine, training in full from the very next day, and the U.S. escaped with a draw.

The U.S. hopes Frisco provides a much friendlier atmosphere, which should aid in implementing a 180-degree tactical shift.

“We didn’t want to defend that deep, especially in the second half [in Barranquilla], but that’s how it was because my players were tired,” Herzog said. “You always have to be confident, but it’s normally easier to play at home in front of your own crowd and with, hopefully, better weather conditions for us. So that should be, hopefully, an advantage for us, but we have to bring it on the field. We have to perform very well. It doesn’t help us if the weather is for us if we don’t play really good. We want to have the [outcome] in our hand; we want to produce, and that’s why I want my team to go forward from the first minute.”

Despite the hostile away conditions, the Americans have their full complement of players at their disposal. Herzog could tweak the lineup as necessary, perhaps moving Kellyn Acosta to his more accustomed left back after he looked out of his element on the right and giving Jerome Kiesewetter the start in attack. That might necessitate a formation shift, though, from the 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield to a 4-3-3.

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Colombia will have to change its personnel after injuries in the first leg. Guillermo Celis joined the U-23s from the senior team to plug a resulting gap in midfield, but Los Cafeteros will likely still trot out their customary 4-4-2 with a box in midfield that could consistently overrun a three-man midfield.

In the end, regardless of formation, the U.S. plans to be much more attack-minded than it was on Friday.

“It’s maintaining a good shape defensively, of course, but also being a little bit smarter on the ball [and] resting while we have the ball,” team captain and midfield anchor Wil Trapp said. “In Colombia, we killed ourselves a little bit with running too much and giving away possession too easily. The more we can have the ball, the more we can make them work. I think you saw that at times, they don’t like to defend. They don’t like to run backwards towards their own goal, so if we can get them to do that a little bit more, it will be beneficial for us.”

At the same time, as Colombia presses for its necessary away goal, the same defensive gaps that the U.S. exploited on the counterattack should still be present. The key will be moving away from a total reliance on the fast-break attack, Trapp said.

“I also think that the onus is on them to try and step out of their shell and score a goal,” he said. “So for us, the counterattack will still likely be on, but also like I said, maintaining possession and being smart with our build-up will be important as well.”

Despite the tag of underdog heading into the series against a strong Colombian side, the U.S. clearly believes it can qualify. With the advantage on away goals and the confidence of a positive result on the road, it’s certainly possible.

“It will be a second tough game because Colombia has a good team, but I expect us to do a better job [Tuesday] than we did already in Colombia,” Herzog said. “I’m very optimistic to go to Rio.”