United States' Olympic Games qualification on the line vs. Colombia
FRISCO, Texas -- On Friday night at the Estadio Metropolitano Roberto Melendez in Barranquilla, Colombia, the home side outshot the United States Under-23 men's national team 18-5. They out-possessed Andi Herzog's men, 75-25 percent. Colombia won the corner kick battle 8-2.
But despite tiring in the second half, the Americans earned a 1-1 draw, thanks to Luis Gil's fifth-minute tally, a strong defensive effort by the midfield and backline and poor finishing from the Colombians. The result means that a win or a 0-0 draw at Toyota Park on Tuesday (9:30pm ET, ESPN2) will see the red, white and blue qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Herzog, however, doesn't want his team to sit back, absorb pressure and hope to escape with a result. He wants his players to be the ones applying the pressure -- to make the Colombians bend until they break.
"I know Colombia is good to score at least one goal, so we have to score one or two too," he said Monday during a news conference. "I expect us to do a better job in possession. We want the Colombian team to chase behind the ball too. That's not their biggest strength for some players."
The Columbus Crew's Wil Trapp, who captained the U.S. and marshaled an effective four-man midfield featuring the Chicago Fire's Matt Polster, Emerson Hyndman of Fulham and recent Queretaro signing Luis Gil, agreed with his coach.
"They don't like to defend," he said before training. "They don't like to run backward toward their own goal. If we can get them to do that, it will be beneficial to us."
It's a simple plan: The U.S. will hope to take care of the ball when it does gain possession, something the team struggled with in the Barranquilla heat. Jordan Morris called the strategy "defending less by keeping the ball more." Colombia, after all, can't score if they don't have anything to shoot.
Saying and doing are two different things, however. Head coach Carlos Restrepo's Colombian team has neither the desire nor the disposition to concede possession to the Americans. Led by captain Juan Quintero, who has a pivotal role as a playmaker at Ligue 1's Rennes and 13 senior national team caps on his growing resume, the visitors will look to score early.
The likely U.S. central defensive duo of Chelsea's Matt Miazga and the Vancouver Whitecaps' Tim Parker will need to provide support for fullbacks Eric Miller and Kellyn Acosta, playing in front of his hometown FC Dallas crowd.
Although Colombia struggled to find the target on Friday -- they managed to put just six of their 18 shots on net, a showing that prompted Trapp to say "they lack a little bit of quality finishing" -- it's unlikely that they will be quite so wasteful again. Allowing nearly 20 shots will certainly be a recipe for watching the Olympics from the couch.
The U.S. doesn't need to out-possess Colombia. Something like a 60-40 split might be enough, especially if they can keep the visitors from penetrating into the middle or down the wings with ease. Even if the Americans don't have the majority of possession, they will find chances.
Colombia's pressing attack will leave cracks in an already porous backline, and, though quick counters weren't a Stars and Stripes talking point Monday afternoon, they will be an option.
The speedster Morris sounded ready to resume streaking up the field and admitted to being a little sore from the effort he expended before the weekend. Even so, he seemed confident that the adrenaline and the moment would carry him and his teammates through.
Morris, of course, has been here before. The Americans need to win this home-and-home series because they failed to defeat Honduras in October. The Seattle Sounders' homegrown player started that match, along with goalkeeper Ethan Horvath, Polster, Miazga, Trapp, Hyndman and Gil.
He said Tuesday's game felt familiar: "It's a little bit of a similar situation: One game, and we're in. Obviously, we came out a little flat that game, and [Honduras] took advantage of that."
Here we are five months later, once again with 90 minutes of soccer between the U.S. and Rio. This is the last chance. One game for glory.
"We want to be dominating possession," Herzog said. "And we have to show them that we are really good soccer players too, and we are not just defending like the second half in Colombia. So if we bring out the quality from the players on the field, offensively, defensively, then we win this game."
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.