Years of preparation and an intense month on-site in Guadalajara, Mexico, are all culminating in one enormous match for the US Under-23 men’s national team and their Olympic dreams.
The format of the Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament is simple, almost brutally so: Make it to the semifinals, then win. Doing so punches a ticket to Tokyo. Anything else means crushing failure. It’s do or die on Sunday at Estadio Jalisco (6 pm ET | FS1, TUDN), and a hard, powerful Honduras side are what stands in the United States’ way.
“This is to qualify for the Olympics and obviously it's a huge game for all of us. It's probably one of the biggest games that any of us have played in,” US left back Sam Vines told reporters in a Saturday press conference.
Head coach Jason Kreis has yet to see a comprehensive 90-minute display of quality from his team, and continues to pursue that goal from a player development standpoint. But at this point it’s win by any means necessary in order to sustain their journey, and Group B winners Honduras should pose the same rugged challenge that their senior teams have presented to many full US national teams over the decades.
“We're expecting an intense game,” said US U-23s captain Jackson Yueill. “They're a very aggressive team going forward. And I think their defenders and their midfield especially are high pressing and like to get after it. But I think it's a really good team, and it'll be a really good challenge for us they have a lot of good crafty players with the ball.”
Kreis said that Minnesota United’s Hassani Dotson, his team’s leading scorer and most impressive midfielder at this tournament thus far, is fighting an ankle sprain sustained in the late going of their final group-stage match, Wednesday’s 1-0 loss to Mexico, and may be limited vs. Honduras.
“Hassani went out of the last game with an ankle sprain. He did not train yesterday, he trained for a little bit today,” said Kreis. “It's still a little bit questionable as to whether or not he'll be in the lineup.”
To add further intrigue to that matter, Loons head coach Adrian Heath told St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter Andy Greder on Saturday that Dotson informed him via text that he would be fit for the big game:
Kreis must also select which two of his three center backs get the starting nod – he called it an “extremely difficult” decision, praising all three of Justen Glad, Henry Kessler and Mauricio Pineda – and which wingers are the best choice to flank Jesus Ferreira, the presumptive first choice for the No. 9 spot. And he’ll need to have his side ready for a fast, clever Catrachos team that typically trots out in a straightforward 4-4-2 formation and imposes themselves physically all over the park.
“It's another team that I think has some really, really nice attacking options. Their central midfielder No. 8, [Edwin] Rodriguez, is pulling a lot of the strings. Their right midfielder who's actually a left-footed player, [Alejandro] Reyes, comes inside and is a real danger and threat,” noted Kreis.
“The fact that they play with two forwards will give us a little bit of a different look than we’ve faced in this tournament so far, and will mean that our back four has to be very connected and very in-tune with things. So a dangerous team, a very good team, and I wouldn't have it any other way, actually. We should have to beat a good and dangerous team in order to qualify for the Olympics.”
It’s a blessing for the US that Honduras central midfielder Kervin Arriaga, who Kreis called “the heart and soul” of their side, is suspended due to a yellow card picked up against Canada on Thursday. Yet there’s also a wild card in the form of Rigoberto Rivas, the talented striker who arrived at this tournament late due to his duties with Italian Serie B club Reggina and poses a potentially game-breaking threat.
Vines emphasized that the US U-23s want to start on “the front foot” and stay there, and controlling the game’s tempo will be important given the occasion’s high stakes and jangling nerves. Penalty kicks are also a possibility should the score remain deadlocked after 90-plus minutes and extra time. Embracing the pressure and seizing the moment is no easy task here, but it could be essential for survival.
“You know, the word opportunity has been thrown around a lot,” said Yueill. “And I think it's a big opportunity for the whole team and the whole coaching staff, and for U.S. Soccer, to get us back to the Olympics and to show that we're a good team in Concacaf and that we deserve to be in the big stages and in the world tournaments.