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Promises fall flat as USA U-23s miss out on Olympics again

The U.S. wanted more control and possession en route to a trip to Rio. Instead it conceded all three to Colombia and failed to reach the Olympics yet again, writes Liviu Bird.

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FRISCO, Texas—The United States Under-23 national team failed to qualify for its third Olympics in the last four after its 2-1 loss to Colombia on Tuesday. The U.S. squandered a 1-1 draw on the road that gave it an away-goals advantage, as Colombia’s victory gave it a 3-2 win on aggregate and the last ticket to Rio.

Unlike on Friday, Colombia struck first, with Roger Martínez putting away a deflection at the back post after Andrés Roa’s shot from the top of the penalty area half an hour into the game. It had been coming, as Los Cafeteros dominated possession throughout the first 30 minutes and came close several times, only to be stopped by U.S. goalkeeper Ethan Horvath.

The Americans got back into it with a fluke own goal by left back Deiver Machado. Emerson Hyndman chipped a ball over the top toward the forwards, and Machado looped his clearing header over goalkeeper Cristián Bonilla’s head in the 58th minute.

Machado would make amends, though. Six minutes later, Martínez put Colombia in the lead for good, taking a cross from Machado on the left and deftly moving past center back Tim Parker to create an open look for himself.

The U.S. also picked up two red cards late in the game as it turned ugly, first on two yellow cards for Luis Gil in a span of five minutes and then a straight red for Matt Miazga, making its comeback task impossible.

Here are three thoughts on the game and the future of this group of U.S. players:

Not an unexpected result

On the balance of the series, as both the eye test and statistical analysis will corroborate, Colombia deserved to win. The attack swarmed all over the field after the first 45 minutes in Barranquilla and should have scored far more often if not for some lackluster finishing.

From the way Colombia dominated both matches, despite the U.S.’s gutsy defensive showing on Friday and Horvath’s stellar goalkeeping on Tuesday, it’s hard to believe the Americans had the advantage after 90 minutes of play. It clearly didn’t faze Colombia, even on the road, as it took the game to the U.S. after a brief adjustment period at the start of the second leg.

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As much as it will hurt with the chance the U.S. set up by getting a draw away from home, this is about how the series was always supposed to go.

It also mirrored the senior team’s general play in major tournaments outside CONCACAF, as the U.S. somehow finds itself in many games despite being dominated by the world’s powers, such as in the 2014 World Cup.

Colombia also deserves credit for its quality in the playoff matches. It responded to going down a goal in the first game and managed the second one expertly, seemingly holding the blueprint for the progression of the match even while playing on foreign soil and giving up an unfortunate equalizing goal. After finally capitalizing on the attack, Los Cafeteros showed that they can defend as well, protecting the late lead as the clock wound down.

As it did against Honduras in the tournament semifinal back in October, the U.S. created its own problems with its emotional response in the last 15 minutes. The Americans couldn’t handle Colombia’s gamesmanship as it bled the clock, and Gil received two yellows as a substitute before Miazga's red card left left the U.S. with nine men.

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U.S.’s promises fall flat

The day before the game, U.S. head coach Andi Herzog said he expected his team to keep more possession and not fall back into a defensive block as it did in Barranquilla in the second half. While the Americans started strong in the first 10 minutes, it was Los Cafeteros again who dominated the ball. The U.S.’s attempts to play out of the back were often misguided, gifting the opponent several chances that could have easily been prevented.

Part of it was due to the U.S. flattening out its midfield for the second leg, playing with just two in the middle and two clear wingers. Colombia continued with its box midfield, overloading central spaces both in and out of possession, and the space vacated by the two other U.S. midfielders left plenty of room to roam. The Americans moved to a three-man midfield in the second half and kept the ball better, but still couldn’t do anything meaningful with it.

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The Americans struggled to find time on the ball. Colombia pressured intensely from the moment it lost possession, which resulted in the first goal on the half-hour mark.

From there (and even beforehand), it was all Colombia as the away team dominated a traditionally gritty American side by matching its physicality but surpassing it technically and tactically.

In the spells when the U.S. found possession, as Colombia fell back into a calculated defensive block to protect its precarious lead in the second half, Los Cafeteros never looked out of control of the game. They began to go forward on the counterattack, but they sprang forward in greater numbers than the Americans managed with their fast breaks earlier in the game. In the end, the U.S. kept the ball more than it did on Friday, but it couldn’t do anything more with the increased possession.

Individual futures come into focus

The roster from the last failed effort to qualify for the Olympics reads as a list of players whose potential could have received a serious boost from a tournament against teams their own age from major soccer countries: Bill Hamid, Freddy Adu, Juan Agudelo, Joe Gyau, Terrence Boyd, Amobi Okugo, Sean Johnson. On the other hand, the 2000 team that went all the way to the bronze-medal match featured several of the country’s biggest names: Landon Donovan, Josh Wolff, Tim Howard, Chris Albright, John O’Brien.

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The pitfalls of missing out on the Olympics have been spouted by experts from technical director Jurgen Klinsmann down to many in the media and fans. The term “missed generation” seems to be most damning, and pessimists will say it already describes this team, just by the sheer fact that it failed to qualify.

However, others from that 2012 U.S. team did go on to make some sort of impact at the senior level: Perry Kitchen, Joe Corona, Brek Shea.

The current U-23 team could have a few others in Horvath, whose play at club level and in this series deserve series plaudits; Matt Miazga, Wil Trapp, Emerson Hyndman and Jordan Morris.

It’s too simplistic to say that they will all miss out on a national team future because of this one failure. As the coach of that 2012 team, Caleb Porter, showed, individual success is possible despite setbacks along the way. Still, the missed opportunity of Rio 2016 will require some work to overcome.