If the urgency didn’t sink in for the U.S. U23 men’s soccer team in October during its attempt to qualify for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games, it has now.
“This is do or die for us,” midfielder Luis Gil said. “This is the last opportunity. It’s the only way we make it.”
Team USA opens a two-game playoff against Colombia in Barranquilla on Friday before returning to face the South Americans again on March 29 in Frisco, Texas, home of FC Dallas. The aggregate goal winner will claim the last of 16 places in the Rio field and earn a chance at Olympic glory.
Only Italy, with 15 appearances, has played soccer in more Olympic men’s soccer tournaments than Team USA (14), but the Americans are in danger of missing out on two consecutive Games for the first time since 1976 and 1980.
Many felt Team USA missed its best chance to qualify in the fall when it hosted the regional CONCACAF qualifying tournament and lost 2-0 to Honduras in Sandy, Utah, in a pivotal match that sent the Latin American country through.
The United States needed to beat Canada 2-0 three days later to earn the match-up against Colombia and a second chance.
“They wanted it more than us,” Gil said. “Honduras just wanted it more than us.”
|(L-R) Luis Gil and James Wilson of England battle for the ball during a friendly match at Deepdale on Sept. 3, 2015 in Preston, England.
Team USA coach Andreas Herzog began gathering his squad on Sunday in Miami and thinks the message has gotten through.
“The main part was we were not physical enough,” Herzog said. “We have to be tough in every battle, especially in Colombia. If given the chance, we have to punish Colombia. We have to learn we had one big chance to qualify against Honduras. I think they learned their lesson.
“Already we’ve seen physicality. They’re fighting for spots. That’s what we want to see. There’s no reason to hold back.”
Herzog will be somewhat shorthanded for both games. Olympic qualifying is limited to players under 23 years of age, born on or after Jan. 1, 1993. At the Olympic Games, teams are allowed to add three players without age restriction.
But because the United States also has FIFA World Cup qualifying games against Guatemala on the same days as the Olympic qualifiers — in Guatemala City on Friday and in Columbus, Ohio, on March 29 — the Olympic team will be without defenders John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin, both 2014 World Cup veterans, who have been called onto the senior team.
That only makes the hurdle a little higher, according to 1992 and ‘96 Olympian Alexi Lalas, who played 96 times for the senior national team and is now a soccer analyst for Fox Sports.
“They’re up against it,” Lalas said. “This is not a CONCACAF team they’re up against. Colombia is a difficult type of opponent to face on a home-and-away basis, especially given the talent and situation in Colombia right now.”
Brad Friedel, Lalas’ teammate on the 1992 Olympic team and an over-age player on the 2000 Olympic team, and now a fellow commentator at Fox, says the heat and humidity of Colombia will play a major factor in the match Friday. Daytime high temperatures average well above 90 degrees in Barranquilla this time of year with humidity over 70 percent.
“The first thing they’ll have to do is see what the conditions are like,” said Friedel, who in January became the coach of the U.S. U19 national squad. “If it’s 98 degrees or 95 degrees, a high-press style will be difficult. You have to play those conditions to your own style.”
Colombia will have a clear advantage, with 20 of its 25-man roster playing for Colombian club teams and well acclimated to the weather, Friedel said.
But, he added, the failure against Honduras in a one-game, 90-minute, sudden-death situation is not the same as a two-game, 180-minute playoff in over two countries.
Regardless, 2008 U.S. Olympic midfielder Sacha Kljestan, who plays for the New York Red Bulls, hopes his younger colleagues grasp the importance.
“I really hope that they understand (it), because it really hurt me to see them play in the Olympic qualifying (semifinal) game against Honduras,” he said. “I watched the game, and it did not look to me they that they were playing for their lives.
“So I hope going into this two-leg playoff that they understand what’s at stake and how big of an opportunity this is because playing in the Olympics changed my life.”
Brian Trusdell has covered four FIFA World Cups and six Olympic Games during his more than 30 years as a sportswriter, mostly with the Associated Press and Bloomberg News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.