United States' Olympic dream in peril after defeat to Honduras
If the United States is to participate in men's Olympic soccer for the first time in eight years next summer, they'll have to qualify for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro the hard way.
On Saturday, the U.S. U-23 national team missed a golden chance to punch its ticket to Brazil, losing 2-0 to Honduras in Sandy, Utah in the CONCACAF semifinals.
The U.S. will now meet the loser of Saturday's other semifinal between Canada and Mexico. If they win that match, they'll face a one-match playoff against Colombia for the right to go to Rio.
The loss was a huge upset, to be sure. For the second time in four years, the Americans failed to close the deal at home in a match in which they were favored. In 2011, the U.S. didn't even make it as far as the semifinals, with El Salvador's late equalizer in a 3-3 tie in the group stage finale denying the chance to play for a place at London 2012.
The Americans have a second chance this time around. But after they were deservedly beaten by a Catracho squad coached by former Costa Rica World Cup boss Jose Luis Pinto, it's hard to like their odds of getting past one of South America's up-and-coming squads -- even if they win Tuesday's consolation match.
Honduras was the better team from the outset, putting Andi Herzog's squad under pressure from the opening whistle.
After a few near misses, 19-year-old striker Alberth Elis put the visitors ahead in the 26th minute, beating defender Cameron Carter-Vickers -- at 17 the youngest player on the U.S.'s 20-man roster -- and slotting a low shot past keeper Ethan Horvath into the bottom left corner.
It was the first time Herzog's team, which outscored foes 13-2 in the first round, had trailed in the tournament. The stunned Yanks didn't respond well, and they were lucky not to concede another before halftime.
The hosts were better in the second half. They came out aggressively immediately after the break, creating a few half chances. In the 64th minute, Tottenham prospect Carter-Vickers had an excellent opportunity to make up for his mistake, but Honduran goalkeeper Luis Lopez denied the big center back with a spectacular diving save.
It was that kind of day for the Americans, who weren't able to find the breakthrough they needed to equalize. The closest they came to scoring was on a Jordan Morris strike that was ruled -- perhaps erroneously -- offside.
With the U.S. pushing forward, the Hondurans found space on the counterattack. And when Anthony Lozano got the guests' second a quarter-hour from full time, the Americans' fate was sealed.
As if the result wasn't devastating enough, the U.S. will play the third place game without Herzog on the sideline, as the Austrian was sent off (along with Pinto) shortly after Lozano's shot hit the net.
Maybe it was overconfidence, something Herzog had warned against in the days leading up to the match, after a cakewalk first round. Maybe Herzog was outcoached by the man that nearly led the Ticos to a World Cup semifinal last year. Whatever the reason, it was a poor performance by the Americans in every way.
And it left their Olympic dreams hanging by a thread.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.