USA’s Olympic dreams take massive hit following loss to Honduras

Alberth Elis (17) is congratulated by his teammates after scoring Honduras first goal against the United States. Los Catrachos sealed their Olympic berth after defeating USA 2-0 on Saturday afternoon.  

Jeffrey Swinger/Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The USA’s hopes of participating in the 2016 Rio Games took a big hit with a 2-0 loss to Honduras in the semifinals of Olympic qualification on Saturday afternoon, thanks to two goals from Alberth Elis. The blow may prove mortal, for while a win would have guaranteed the Americans a berth in the Games they now must win the third-place game, likely against Canada — and then win a playoff against vastly-stronger Colombia side.

This was a massive collapse by an American U-23 side that had breezed past their opponents in the group stage, scoring 13 goals while conceding only two. True, these wins were over noted soccer powers Cuba, Panama and Canada, but the Americans had looked impressive, vindicating manager Andreas Herzog’s bullish pre-tournament predictions. The young Americans were starting to play a more assertive and attacking style behind college speedster Jordan Morris and emerging star Luis Gil. There was real hope that this generation of players might finally refill the pipeline to the national team.

There was also real pressure on this group. National team manager Jurgen Klinsmann had said another failure to qualify for an Olympic games meant that the USA would “lose another generation of young players.” While these Olympic Games are taken far more seriously by the USA than many other nations, the fact is this was an audition for many for full national team call-ups. On the evidence, many of these players will not make the leap.

On Saturday, in Utah and under pressure, the Americans simply didn’t show up. Time and time again, the Americans tried to punt the ball down the field to Morris, a tactic that Honduras recognized and easily dealt with. Honduras made hay of their own down the left flank, attacking Dillon Serna mercilessly.  And a bad defensive gaffe by Cameron Carter-Vickers allowed Honduras to score in the 24th minute.

Kevin Alvarez sent in a simple ball from the near side that William Trapp allowed to drift to Elis. With Trapp standing off, Elis chested the ball, took a step — and then badly turned Carter-Vickers inside out to finish past keeper Ethan Horvath with a fine shot to the far corner.

The goal stunned the Americans — Horvath looked visibly upset as play restarted — and Antony Lozano nearly doubled the Catrachos’ lead moments later. Latching on to a long ball out of the back with the Americans trying to press up, Lozano headed the ball between Matthew Miazga and Boyd Okwuono and then fired at Horvath. Fortunately for the keeper, the shot took a skip on the turf, causing it to bounce up lazily for an easy grab.

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Honduras keeper Luis Lopez wasn’t really troubled until late in the half, when a rare giveaway allowed the Americans a free shot. Elder Torres conceded possession and Miazga was able to slip the ball through to Jerome Kiesewetter for a shot at the low post, that Lopez easily stopped.

Things nearly went from bad to worse for the Americans right after the break when Bryan Acosta latched on to a loose ball in the American box, only to see Miazga make an awkward, sprawling block to clear the danger. And there was precious little relief up top for the beleaguered Yanks, who only saw sporadic play from Kiesewetter and Morris.

But goat Carter-Vickers nearly hauled the USA back into the game in the 65th, forcing Lopez to make a great one-handed save off his header from a corner. It was the Americans’ best chance of the game to that point, and Carter-Vickers pounded the turf in frustration after Lopez scooped the ball over his own bar.

Then Elis ended the game with a stunning goal in the 77th, again an end-product of poor defending. Trapp was beat on the endline, and Elis was able to collect the ball and blow it into the far top corner.

The Americans were hard done by in the 83rd when Morris scored a perfectly good goal, only to see it waved off for a phantom offside. But it felt like too little too late, and the game ended in ugly scenes, as players from both teams appeared to trade punches while both managers were ejected.