All together now: Time is a flat circle.
At least it is when it comes to US men’s national teams in must-win games over the past half-decade or so. Drop in the McConaughey “True Detective” gif wherever you see fit.
On Sunday the US Under-23s had one game to win, one opponent to navigate past in order to reach the Tokyo Olympics, and they failed. There’s really no other way to say it. We can talk about circumstances and challenges and letdowns – and there is important context to consider – but for all the bumps and diversions on the road they’ve traveled over the past two years, this was an attainable ask for the U-23s.
And they shot themselves in the foot, and were duly defeated by a deserving Honduras outfit. Goalkeeper David Ochoa wears the goat’s horns for his horrific error in possession right after halftime, but as you load your slings and arrows, remember: Ochoa, the youngest player on this roster, saved his team’s bacon in their vital opening win over Costa Rica, without which the US would’ve never gotten this far.
Here’s three observations from another U.S. Soccer Waterloo.
They got the details wrong
Coach Jason Kreis made some debatable choices with his rosters, and could be accused of being overly dogmatic with his team’s shape and insistence on building out of the back. From where I’m sitting he did, however, trot out the strongest and most sensible starting XI at his disposal right now. Things got dicey soon after that, however.
For some reason Andres Perea was preferred as the single pivot at the base of midfield, while usual holding mid Jackson Yueill pushed up into a No. 8 role, and the United States’ possession game suffered as a result, looking plodding and tentative for the game’s first hour.
Perea is a rangy, powerful engine-room presence, while Yueill has the cultured range of passing to set the tempo and switch the point of attack. To me they would’ve made a lot more sense in the opposite deployment, but this was a purposeful wrinkle to try and catch Honduras out.
“Andres is a great player, he disrupts a lot of the opponents’ transitional play and I think he’s very crafty with the ball,” said a somber Yueill postgame. “I think our game plan was to get me into higher spots and try to play good balls in behind to the runners.
“The first half was a little slow in those moments, trying to break them down, but as the game got on I think me and Andres’ connection got better and better and we were able to find each other more. I think we could have utilized the outside wingers a little bit better and got behind them a little bit more.”
It didn’t work, and that stymied US hopes of seizing the initiative with an assertive, front-foot start to the match.
The wiser, more mature team won
Soccer, it’s often said, is a game of mistakes. The side that makes fewer of them usually wins. And so it was at Estadio Jalisco on Sunday.
Los Catrachos did what they have done throughout this tournament and what their national teams have done for much of their modern soccer history: They were organized, tough, intense, committed, quick and purposeful in transition. As the final seconds of the first half ticked away, Honduras kept focus when the North Americans’ slipped, and were rewarded with Juan Carlos Obregon’s scrappy finish from close range, an opening goal of enormous weight.
Obregon is actually a product of the US system; he was born in New York and played some college soccer before turning pro. His most recent club was USL Championship side Rio Grande Valley Toros. He didn’t tilt this game in his team’s favor with some transcendent display of skill; he sniffed out space at the back post on a speculative set-piece delivery into the US penalty box, committed himself at the right time and bundled home.
From there on the US were chasing the game, and Ochoa’s gift on the other side of intermission magnified that. Why was the Real Salt Lake ‘keeper so casual with the ball at his feet? Why did he entertain such glaring risk with such scant corresponding reward?
We know that Jason Kreis and the coaching staff have been doggedly committed to playing out of the back, emphasizing the long-term gain even when short-range pain results. But composed decision-making is central to that philosophy and in that crucial moment, it was lacking. That’s on both Ochoa and the staff that have been preparing him for times like this.
This is one developmental data point among many
There are no excuses for the US men’s latest Olympic failure, EVEN IF the U-23s were missing the top 20 or so players on the depth chart due to their clubs electing not to voluntarily release them.
And EVEN IF this created a talent deficit relative to what an ideal US roster could’ve been here, the group in Guadalajara fluffed their lines in a must-win situation, much like the full USMNT did on that fateful final night of 2018 Concacaf World Cup qualifying down in Couva, Trinidad & Tobago.
It’s cause for self-criticism, even recriminations, any time a team of professionals falls short in such scenarios. But the alarm bells don’t screech quite as loudly this time as they did in 2012 and 2016, because over the past year or two the senior national team has practically become a U-23 team itself as a golden generation of young talent climbs into some of Europe’s biggest leagues and clubs.
This month’s USMNT roster for the friendlies vs. Jamaica and Northern Ireland had an average age of just over 23, and were the protagonists in both of those two victories. We don’t yet know how that group will handle truly high-pressure games – we’ll learn more when they contest the Concacaf Nations League semifinals and World Cup qualifiers later this year – but it doesn’t seem overly optimistic to speculate that they’ll handle it better than the Olympic squad did.
If they don’t? That’s when the panic strikes in earnest.