USMNT

Olympic qualifying preview: US U-23s v. Honduras

“Hey, here’s a Honduran guy!” Brayan Beckeles photo by Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

This is The Big One. Beat Honduras this afternoon, and the United States advances to the U-23 title game against Mexico. More importantly, the semifinal winners qualify for the Olympics, and that is something the Americans would very much like to do.

The essentials

Opponent: Honduras U-23
Time, Location: Sunday, March 28, 5 p.m. CDT • Guadalajara, Mexico
Weather: 89ºF, 0% chance of rain, 5% humidity, negligible wind
Watch: FS1 (national) • TUDN (nacional)

The rankings (senior teams): USA 22 , Honduras 64
Competition: Concacaf Olympic qualifying semifinal
Format reminder: Semifinal winners qualify for the Olympics, and advance to play each other for the U-23 championship Tuesday.

The competition

With Canada and Honduras playing to a draw in the nightcap after the Americans couldn’t take down Mexico Thursday evening, Group B ended with Los Catrachos on top, advancing to play Group A No. 2 United States, while the Canucks (No. 2 Group B) try to take down Mexico in the semifinal.

As noted above, this is the truly consequential game remaining. The winners qualify for the 2020 Olympics (which, you may note, are taking place in 2021) in Tokyo, while the losers go home. Yes, the winners also play a continental final Tuesday evening – and given that a US win today would mean playing either Canada or Mexico, that’d be a rivalry game very much worth winning – but the core function of competing in the Olympic qualifying tournament is to qualify for the Olympics.

Obviously, you are cheering hard for Canada to win in the nightcap, because lol Mexico. (I mean Canada is technically a rival as well, but the Canucks are harder to hate from a sporting perspective. They’d also be the less-intimidating opposition in a hypothetical final).

Los Catrachos

Honduras took the first seed in Group B by virtue of a more-impressive Matchday One win than Canada had: by beating Haiti 3-0 and drawing the remaining two games, Los Catrachos barely edged out Canada’s 2-0 win over El Salvador, which was also paired with a couple draws. The head-to-head game was an unexciting affair, and while I wouldn’t exactly call it a gentleman’s draw, neither team was particularly urgent until Canada tried unsuccessfully to find a winner in the late stage of the game.

So: Honduras. The vast majority of this squad plays in the domestic league, but there are a few exceptions. Third keeper Enrique Facussé is a college kid, and doesn’t start for the University of Kentucky (while both other Wildcats have better numbers than him, too). Forwards Juan Carlos Obregón and Douglás Martinez play for USL’s Rio Grande Valley and MLS’s Real Salt Lake, respectively. Martínez got under 1,000 minutes for RSL, and was a below-average player according to American Soccer Analysis‘s Goals Added. His dribbling, passing, and shooting (these are all important pieces of the game for a striker) are all poor, while his fouling and receiving (the latter is also very important for a striker – it describes getting into good positions offensively) are above-average. Obregón put up awful G+ numbers for an awful RGV team (for comparison, Robert Castellanos, the new Boy in Gold, put up outstanding G+ numbers despite playing for that same RGV team).

Martínez started the first two games and even scored against El Salvador, but did not see the field in the Canada game. He has a chance to start against a number of his RSL teammates on the back-end tonight (right back Aaron Herrera, centerback Justen Glad, and keeper David Ochoa all feel likely to start). Obregón replaced him at halftime in the opener and in the 74th minutes against El Salvador before earning the start in his stead against Canada. That feels like a load-management deal and we should see Martínez tonight.

The other non-domestic players suit up for club teams in a variety locations teams. Denil Maldonado plays for Everton – the one in Chile, not the one in England – is a centerback, and captained the team in each of the three group-stage games. Your mileage may vary as to the quality of play in lower levels of Italy, but Reggina (Serie B in Italy) midfielder Rigoberto Rivas played only against Canada (it realllllly looks like Honduras was resting its first-choice lineup, though he did lead the team in shots in that one), while Joseph Rosales – who plays for Independiente in Panama – got just two minutes of stoppage time against the Canucks.

Vida striker Luis “Louie Da Palma” Palma leads the team with nine shots in the competition, though he has yet to see any of them his the back of the net. Olimpia midfielder Edwín Rodríguez – a teammate of former NSC defender Brayan Beckeles! – can play on the right or centrally, and has been one of the primary playmakers. Darixon Vuelto, the left winger, scored a brace in the opener and went the distance against El Salvador but didn’t see the pitch in the Canada game.

The backline has mostly been consistent around Maldonado, with former ATL UTD 2 player Wesly Decas at left back and José García the other CB. Right back has seen Christopher Meléndez play every minute since replacing Carlos Argueta in the first half of the opener.

This has been a consistent team, but you can see that it’s not one that should strike fear into the hearts of the US.

The Americans

Jason Kreis was not quite as experimental as I would have liked to see against Mexico, going with a fairly standard lineup instead of shaking things up and giving time to depth players (though he used all five substitutions – and keeper Matt Freese is the only American who hasn’t seen the pitch in this tournament).

It looks like David Ochoa is the choice in net over JT Marcinkowski, while Aaron Herrera is on the field at one of the fullback positions (he’s played both, in place of Sam Vines on the left and Julian Araujo on the right – I would say Vines is the guy you want on the pitch to start an all-important game). The three primary CBs have each played twice, so it’s impossible to divine from their playing time who’s preferred. Mauricio Pineda was pretty strong against Mexico – after his rough game in the opener – so I’d be comfortable with any combination available there. Justen Glad just feels like the top choice, so either Pineda or Kessler alongside him.

The midfield has a lot of interesting choices (in part because there aren’t many true creators available). I’m a longtime Jackson Yueill fan, while Hassani Dotson has had some really impressive moments – much more so than we saw for Minnesota United in the 2020 MLS season, I’d say – and the third spot… depends on what you’re looking for? Andrés Perea would be the conservative, second-holder choice. Djordjie Mihailovic is ostensibly the option for an attacking No. 10… but a guy in that position who hasn’t created chances in this tournament is a little bit of a wasted spot, yeah? Either Tanner Tessmann or Johnny Cardoso could be more of a Dotson-esque box-to-box guy, but neither has been outstanding in the competition.

The forward options are similarly undifferentiated by this point, though they’ve been a little more successful against the team across the field, even as they’ve failed to create a ton of separation from each other. Jesús Ferreira seems like the top striker choice, while some combination of Sebastian Saucedo, Benji Michel, and Jonathan Lewis are the top winger options. (Sebastian Soto could also be a winger – or play his more natural position of center forward, while pushing Ferreira out to a wing or to the bench). Once again: lots of options, different styles available, but in terms of pure output, not much to decide between them.

Predictions

United States takes the win and makes the Olympics, with a 3-1 victory.

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