Olympic qualifying W2W4: Can the U.S. attack Colombia's vulnerable defense?
MIAMI -- If the U.S. U-23 national team is to upset Colombia in their two-leg Olympic playoff that beings Friday in the northern Colombian city of Barranquilla, the key will be surviving the first game.
Coach Andi Herzog's squad doesn't have to win at Estadio Metropolitano Roberto Melendez. They don't even have to tie. What the Americans do have to do is keep the score line close enough against the dangerous Cafeteros to ensure that they have a fighting chance in the second leg Tuesday in Frisco, Texas (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN).
As such, one would think that Herzog's focus ahead of the opener would be on containing the hosts' potent attack. But while stout defending will be certainly be required on the road, the coach believes that with away goals serving as the tiebreaker should the aggregate score be level after the two matches, his side must score in the first leg.
"We have very good attacking players, too," Herzog said before the team trained at Barry University on Tuesday, a day before the team flew south. "We're always able to score some goals, so that is what I expect."
Herzog's remarks aren't entirely accurate. The Americans might already be qualified for this summer's Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro had they been able to find the net against Honduras in the semifinals of CONCACAF's qualifying tournament back in October. Instead, the Catrachos took one of the region's two automatic berths in the 2-0 win. The U.S. got its second chance, albeit one much tougher than the first, by beating Canada in the third-place match.
"It was the worst game [we've played] since I'm the coach of this team. It was embarrassing," said Herzog, who was named to his post in early 2015. "But now we have two chances to make it better. We will be prepared."
Herzog has a stronger roster than he did last fall despite an injury to starting center-back Cameron Carter-Vickers. Just 10 players return from that squad. Among the 13 newcomers are Kellyn Acosta, Julian Green and Brandon Vincent, who all boast senior team caps. (Green, of course, scored for the U.S. against Belgium in the knockout round of the 2014 World Cup.)
Eleven participated in the month-long, joint senior/U-23 camp in January and February, and five -- Acosta, Paul Arriola, Emerson Hyndman, Desevio Payne and Chelsea's Matt Miazga -- started in the Americans' knockout-stage victory against Colombia at last summer's U-20 World Cup in New Zealand.
So while it won't be easy, there is some hope for U.S. fans. Here are three things to watch for during Friday's match.
1. Can the U.S. be aggressive?
With a Good Friday crowd of 40,000 expected, the Americans will have to take the fans out of the game early. That means not sitting back and absorbing pressure, although the technical hosts will certainly have the possession edge. And when Herzog's team has its chances, it has to take them -- something it didn't do vs. Honduras in October.
"We were not able to be determined in the box and create chances," Herzog said. "That's normally one of the strengths of our team. Looking forward, we all can show that we can do it much better than against Honduras. That's what we have to do."
It will help that ...
2. Colombia's weakness is its back line
Nobody questions the pedigree of Colombian players; FIFA ranks the Cafeteros senior squad 10th in the world. But all teams have an Achilles' heel, and the South Americans' is their center-back tandem of Yerry Mina and Jherson Vergara.
The two are towering but slow, and can be breached on the counter-attack by fleet-footed U.S. forwards Green, Jerome Kiesewetter and Jordan Morris. Colombia -- whose roster features five players who were on the U-20 team that lost to the Americans last June -- conceded twice in its most recent game, a 2-2 tie last month against the Rio-bound Hondurans.
3. Who takes Carter-Vickers' spot?
While the 18-year-old Tottenham prospect partnered Miazga at both the CONCACAF tournament and the U-20 World Cup, the Americans might have a more experienced replacement ready to step in, in 23-year-old Vancouver Whitecaps center-back Tim Parker. The New Yorker has made 18 first-team appearances since joining the Caps last year (Carter-Vickers is still waiting for his professional debut), and he's been excellent in the first three games of the new MLS season, playing every minute so far. He also trained alongside Miazga in January, before the former Red Bull left U.S. camp to complete his transfer to Chelsea.
Who'll line up in central midfield is less clear. Herzog has no shortage of options there, with Acosta, Fatai Alashe, Luis Gil, Hyndman, Matt Polster and captain Wil Trapp all capable of starting.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.