The trendline is clear: The United States failed to qualify for the men’s Olympic soccer tournament in 2012 and 2016, then ended a streak of seven straight World Cup appearances when it missed out on 2018.
A young U.S. team admittedly missing its top players tries to stop the skid when it plays Honduras at Guadalajara, Mexico, on Sunday night in a one-game matchup for a trip to this summer’s Olympics in Japan.
“Every tournament now going forward is an opportunity for U.S. Soccer,” U.S. captain Jackson Yueill said Saturday. “You start in the Nations League and then I think it goes on to this tournament and the tournaments in the summer and World Cup qualifiers. I think each opportunity for the U.S. national team is an opportunity to stake a claim and to increase U.S. soccer and make it better. So I think the team is looking really good, and we’re ready to make the most of this moment.”
In North and Central American and Caribbean qualifying delayed by one year due to the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. opened March 18 with an unimpressive 1-0 win over Costa Rica on a goal by Jesús Ferreira, then clinched advancement with a 4-0 rout of the Dominican Republic behind an opening goal by Yueill, two goals by Hassani Dotson and one by Djordje Mihailovic. Sebastian Soto’s giveaway led to the only goal in a 1-0 defeat to Mexico.
Dotson left the Mexico match with a sprained left ankle, did not train Friday and competed in only part of practice on Saturday.
“I think it’s still a little bit questionable as to whether or not he’ll be in the lineup,” U.S. coach Jason Kreis said.
Honduras finished first in Group B with a 3-0 victory over Haiti, a 1-1 draw with El Salvador and a 1-1 tie with Canada.
Catrachos midfielder Kervin Arriaga is suspended for yellow card accumulation.
“We have to feel a little bit fortunate that he is, because to me he feels like the heart and soul of the Honduran team when we watch him play,” Kreis said.
FIFA specifies only players born Jan. 1, 1997, or later are eligible for Olympic qualifying and says clubs do not have to release anyone for qualifying or the Olympics. Among the absent are Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Josh Sargent, Sergiño Dest, Chris Richards, Antonee Robinson and Yunas Musah, who planned to be watching from Belfast after the senior national team meets Northern Ireland in an exhibition earlier Sunday.
“It’s going to be late hours here, but we’re still going to get it on,” U.S. senior national team coach Gregg Berhalter said Saturday. “To me, it’s a great opportunity for U.S. Soccer. I think Jason’s done a good job with this group. It’s not easy when all - almost all of your starting 11 is not available due to not being released. But we’ve compensated. I think it speaks to the depth in our player pool.”
Yueill tops the U.S. roster with nine appearances for the senior national team. If the U.S. wins, none of the players is guaranteed a roster spot for the Olympics, when three wild-card players over the age limit can be added by each nation.
“We’re expecting an intense game. I think they’re a very aggressive team team going forward,” Yueill said. “And I think their defenders and their midfielders especially are high-pressing.”
Players also are trying to impress Berhalter and move up the depth chart for the senior national team ahead of World Cup qualifying in September.
“It’s very similar in the way they conduct the team and how they want outside backs to play,” left back Sam Vines said. “They want us outside backs to be attacking on the front foot and also just doing our job defensively.”
The winner of the U.S.-Honduras matchup and the second game of the doubleheader between Mexico and Canada join the 16-nation field for the Olympics, to be played from July 21 to Aug. 7. The draw is April 21.
Sunday night’s winners meet in Tuesday night’s relatively meaningless CONCACAF Under-24 Championship.
“I think in some ways it’s a little unfortunate that we have one-off games to qualify for Olympics, but it is what it is,” Kreis said. “And so, yes, it’s a massive game and a game that we are going to be doing everything possible to win.”
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