Colombia U-23 vs. USA U-23
2016 Rio Olympics Qualifying Playoff First Leg
March 25 | 5 pm ET | Estadio Metropolitano Roberto Melendez, Barranquilla, Colombia
TV: FS1, UDN
It's must-win time for the US U-23 national team, as they face Colombia's U-23 team in a home-and-away playoff series to determine which country fills the final slot for the 2016 Rio Olympics men's soccer tournament. The US qualified for the playoff by virtue of finishing third in CONCACAF's qualifying tournament last year, while Colombia finished second in the 2015 South American Youth Championship.
Both countries, while known for success on the senior front in recent decades, have a decidedly mixed record when it comes to Olympic qualifying. Colombia have not played in the Olympics since Barcelona in 1992, and have never earned a medal in any of their four previous trips. The US, meanwhile, last played at Beijing 2008, and came closest to medaling in modern history in Sydney 2000, where they finished fourth.
The US and Colombia have never met on the U-23 level in competitive play. Both teams participated in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the first time the Olympic tournament was officially a U-23 event, but they were drawn into separate groups and neither advanced to the knockout stage.
Nobody can say the Americans have taken the project of qualifying for the Olympics lightly, as this cycle of the U-23 team has spent more time together than other U-23 squads in recent memory. They have gotten together for regular training camps, including a hybrid call-up camp in January with the senior team, and got some reps as a group in friendlies as well as last year's qualifying tournament.
Even with the committed resources behind the project, there are considerable nerves heading into the playoff. Colombia may not have an illustrious track record themselves at the U-23 level, but the US' struggles in CONCACAF Olympic qualifying, where they lost 2-0 to Honduras in the game that would have clinched passage to the Olympics, means the margin is razor thin. Truthfully, the US have a tall order in the playoff, but that doesn't mean it can't be done.
Although the roster for this playoff is substantially different than the one that placed second in the prestigious South American Youth Championship (which is a U-20 tournament that double as Olympic qualifying), the players called up by Carlos Restrepo have considerable experience, for both club and country, and nearly half of the roster has been called up to Colombia's senior team. Granted, the same can be said for the US roster for the playoff.
Two factors should give Colombia confidence heading into the first leg of the tie. First, the opening game will be played on their home turf, and if they get a big win, they can all but wrap up the playoff in the first 90 minutes. And second, the US played a pair of friendlies against a Brazilian U-23 team, both in Brazil, last November, losing the first 2-1 and the second 5-1. As long as Los Cafeteros are on the same page collectively and don't underestimate their opponents, they'll be favored to reach the Olympics.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Jordan Morris, USA - The Seattle Sounders rookie has struggled a bit in his first several professional games, but on a team that will likely be looking to defend first and grab goals at opportune moments, he'll likely be the Americans' go-to scoring option.
Juan Fernando Quintero, Colombia - The diminutive playmaker has long been one of the best Colombian prospects and already has experience in several European leagues, currently plying his trade in Ligue 1 for Rennes. If Quintero is given free reign, the US will be forced to play on the back foot.
GOALKEEPERS (3): Cody Cropper (Milton Keynes Dons, ENG), Ethan Horvath (Molde FK, NOR), Tyler Miller (Seattle Sounders)
DEFENDERS (8): Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Matt Miazga (Chelsea FC, ENG), Eric Miller (Colorado Rapids), Tim Parker (Vancouver Whitecaps FC), Desevio Payne (FC Groningen, NED), Shane O’Neill (Cambridge United, ENG), Brandon Vincent (Chicago Fire), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas)
MIDFIELDERS (9): Fatai Alashe (San Jose Earthquakes), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana, MEX), Luis Gil (Queretaro, MEX), Julian Green (Bayern Munich, GER), Emerson Hyndman (Fulham FC, ENG), Jerome Kiesewetter (VfB Stuttgart, GER), Matt Polster (Chicago Fire), Dillon Serna (Colorado Rapids), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew SC)
FORWARDS (3): Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders FC), Mario Rodriguez (Borussia Monchengladbach, GER), Khiry Shelton (New York City FC)
GOALKEEPERS (3): Cristian Bonilla (Atletico Nacional, COL), Alvaro Montero (San Lorenzo, ARG), Luis Hurtado (Deportivo Cali, COL)
DEFENDERS (9): Cristian Borja (Santa Fe, COL), Yerry Mina (Santa Fe, COL), Jaine Barreiro (Santa Fe, COL), Luis Orejuela (Deportivo Cali, COL), Deiver Machado (Millonarios, COL), Felipe Aguilar (Atletico Nacional, COL), Davinson Sanchez (Atletico Nacional, COL), Helibelton Palacios (Deportivo Cali, COL), Jherson Vergara (Livorno, ITA)
MIDFIELDERS (8): Juan Pablo Nieto (Atletico Nacional, COL), Juan Fernando Quintero (Rennes, FRA), Yony Gonzalez (Junior, COL), Raul Loaiza (Patriotas, COL), Jose Leudo (Deportivo Pasto, COL), Wilmar Barrios (Deportes Tolima, COL), Andres Felipe Roa (Deportivo Cali, COL), Jarlan Barrera (Junior, COL)
FORWARDS (5): Roger Martinez (Racing Club, ARG), Cristian Dajome (Deportes Tolima, COL), Harold Preciado (Deportivo Cali, COL), Rafael Santos Borre (Deportivo Cali, COL), Andres Renteria (Santos Laguna, MEX)