All the pieces needed to bring about a full-on narrative pivot for the United States Men’s National Team were falling into place. The full USMNT had just put forth an impressive display in a new formation and won their first road game against a European team in six years. Meanwhile, the U-23 team needed only to beat Honduras in order to secure its first Olympics bid since the Bush administration. After the embarrassment of 2017 came the regeneration of the player pool, and though very few of the team’s top-line youngsters took part in the Olympics qualifying tournament in Guadalajara, the U-23 team was stocked with real professional players. A ticket to Tokyo would have represented a corner being turned for the whole men’s program. Naturally, they fucked it.
Fans can fairly blame Sunday’s 2-1 loss on U.S. soccer personnel at every level, from administrators to the coaching staff to the players, but we have no choice but to start with what would turn out to be the winning goal. David Ochoa was fantastic through the rest of the tournament, though none of that matters now, since he gifted Luis Palma one of the most embarrassing goals I’ve ever seen.
Ochoa’s horrific blunder came 100 or so seconds after the start of the second half, and only two minutes of game time after the U.S. surrendered a goal to Juan Carlos Obregon right at the end of the first half. Getting scored on just before halftime had to leave a sour taste, as the U.S. created one perfect chance and played Honduras more or less evenly, yet sat at a disadvantage. But coming out fired up for the second half and immediately shooting yourself in the face is a great way to start spiraling. Aaron Herrera picked up a quick yellow card, and the team really should have surrendered a third goal on a sloppily defended breakaway. All seemed lost until Jackson Yueill halved the deficit with a lightning bolt from outside the box.
What followed was a succession of near-misses and agonizing half-chances, the likes of which should be familiar to anyone who’s spent serious time rooting for the USMNT through their various failed campaigns to break down lesser CONCACAF sides. Jonathan Lewis pointed a header on frame minutes after Yueill’s goal, but a Honduras defender cleared it off the line. Yueill nearly snuck a free kick into the far post in the 68th minute, but keeper Alex Barrios was ready. Tanner Tessman worked a cross past Barrios in the 83rd, but Jonathan Lewis couldn’t control it. Ochoa also almost repeated his blunder in the 85th minute with a scuffed clearance, though luckily the USMNT escaped further embarrassment and only lost by one goal. For the second consecutive Olympic qualifying cycle, Honduras had brought the U.S. to its knees.
The U.S. U-23s have a handful of built-in excuses for the catastrophic loss, yet none of them hold water. A good chunk of eligible players like Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, and Weston McKennie were never going to get released by their European clubs for a youth tournament, and even a few players on the roster for the aborted qualifying tournament initially scheduled for 2020, like Brendan Aaronson and Mark McKenzie, had moved on up in the intervening years. Other mainstays like Richie Ledezma and Paxton Pomykal were ruled out with injuries. However, the roster that did travel to Mexico was not short on established professional players. Jason Kreis brought a who’s who of young MLS studs and a handful of international guys with top-level experience. Even if the U-23 squad was missing some core players, they should have beaten a team whose pair of goalscoring forwards just finished so-so seasons with second-division clubs in the States. This was a much stronger group than the waterlogged 2016 crew that got owned by Honduras, or the 2012 team that failed to escape a group that contained El Salvador, Canada, and Cuba.
There is no reason why this team should have lost. They had better players than Honduras and more international and club experience. This is as embarrassing as the 2017 failure against Trinidad and Tobago, though not as ruinous, since this team never qualifies for the Olympics. Weird things can happen when everything is at stake in a single game, but the U.S.’s built-in advantage was such that they can’t just blame bad luck.
Kreis did make a pair of crucial errors in roster construction, the most glaring of which was the team’s complete dearth of creative midfielders. Pomykal, Aaronson, and Ledezma would normally fill that role, and while I understand that Andres Perea and Johnny Cardoso are some of the most enticing players in the pool, bringing a midfield group without much creative juice was a baffling self-inflicted wound. The U.S. looked wooden in attack throughout the tournament, and while some of that is because the MLS season is a month away and the team hadn’t spent much time gelling, you cannot discount the dearth of guys who could create a chance. Once those chances were created, the U.S. also did not have arguably its best eligible forward, Jeremy Ebobisse, there to finish them. Ebobisse has been a stud for Portland, though he was cut from the team over his form at a January camp where he was dealing with the effects of a concussion. Rather than build around a proven goalscorer and a normal way of doing things, Kreis insisted on playing out of the back, which I am sure Palma is quite thankful for.
Here is something Kreis said after the result, which he termed a tragedy:
I don’t know that if I’ve ever seen a game where we’ve had players miscontrol the ball so much by going under people’s feet, passing out of bounds. These are things that are just really — you just really kind of scratch your head, you think of, “What’s going on here?”ESPN
If the sudden rise of USMNT-eligible youngsters across Europe has caught you off-guard, or changed the vibe of the program too abruptly to keep track of, at least the Olympic qualifying failure showed this much: The USMNT can’t get rid of its accursedness that quickly.