With the ghosts of 2012 ever present, the U.S. U23 MNT will take the field in Barranquilla, Colombia Friday night in the first leg of a two-game Olympic Qualifying aggregate score showdown against Colombia.
Step one on the Americans road to redemption comes just a day shy of being four years to the date of Jaime Alas’ 95th-minute prayer that somehow evaded U.S. keeper Sean Johnson, ending the game at 3-3 and the Americans Olympic Dream with it.
A “Lost Generation,” Jurgen Klinsmann dubbed the group of players that came up short versus El Salvador that night in Nashville. As if to underline his point, Klinsmann selected just one player from that group for the 2014 World Cup squad and that player, Mix Diskerud, never left the bench for the U.S. in Brazil.
Of course, this team has only itself to blame for this predicament, because it didn’t have to be this way. Led by Jordan Morris, Jerome Kiesewetter and several graduates of the promising U20 side, the Americans cruised through the opening round at the CONCACAF Olympic qualifiers last October, winning all three matches.
With a win in the tournament semifinal assuring a trip to Rio the Yanks flopped, losing 2-0 to Honduras and necessitating this Colombia faceoff and raising the specter of Lost Generation II.
The value of the Olympics in the men’s game is an open question but Klinsmann, in his dual role as U.S. coach and Technical Director, shone a light on the Games with his lost generation remarks and again when he placed qualification for the quadrennial competition alongside winning the Gold Cup as U.S. Soccer’s top priorities for 2015.
Given the unmitigated disaster that was the U.S. performance at the Gold Cup, on home soil, no less, Olympic qualification takes on even more importance.
Klinsmann has entrusted the task to his chief lieutenant Andi Herzog and it is a big ask. Colombia took a much different route to this last chance qualifier than Herzog’s charges, finishing second in South America’s U20 Championship behind Argentina, with Brazil receiving a free pass as the Olympic hosts.
The Colombia roster is primarily home based, although a handful of the Cafeteros roster play in foreign leagues. Klinsmann pulled rank on Herzog by selecting age eligible defenders John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin for World Cup Qualifiers against Guatemala, although Klinsmann has the option of re-deploying the pair should Friday’s results dictate.
Expect Herzog to start Ethan Horvath in goal, the 20-year-old Molde backstop has surpassed Cody Cropper and Zack Steffan, who is out injured.
Chelsea prospect Matt Miazga will start at one center back spot and Kellyn Acosta looks likely to man one of the fullback spots. Herzog has plenty to choose from in the midfield but the Americans could use a breakout performance from either Luis Gil or Emerson Hyndman in a playmaking role.
The Kiesewetter, Morris strike force keyed whatever success the U.S. had in October and they will need to be sharp if the Americans are to have any hope against Colombia.
Youth tournaments can be notoriously difficult to predict but Klinsmann has made qualification for Rio a cornerstone of his program and after the Gold Cup fail that program could use a boost.
The ghosts of Nashville linger but a trip to Rio can banish those spirits, if not U.S. Soccer could be looking at Lost Generation II, the Sequel.
U23 – U.S. Roster:
GOALKEEPERS (3): Cody Cropper (Milton Keynes Dons), Ethan Horvath (Molde KJ), Tyler Miller (Seattle Sounders FC)
DEFENDERS (8): Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Matt Miazga (Chelsea FC), Eric Miller (Colorado Rapids), Tim Parker (Vancouver Whitecaps FC), Desevio Payne (FC Groningen), Shane O’Neill (Cambridge United), Brandon Vincent (Chicago Fire), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas)
MIDFIELDERS (9): Fatai Alashe (San Jose Earthquakes), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Luis Gil (Queretaro), Julian Green (Bayern Munich), Emerson Hyndman (Fulham FC), Jerome Kiesewetter (VfB Stuttgart), Matt Polster (Chicago Fire), Dillon Serna (Colorado Rapids), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew SC)
FORWARDS (3): Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders FC), Mario Rodriguez (Borussia Monchengladbach), Khiry Shelton (New York City FC)