FRISCO, Texas—This wasn't the United States national team that was supposed to be in a better mood heading into the second game of the March international window. Underdogs in the away leg of their Olympic qualifying playoff against Colombia, the U.S. Under-23s came away with a 1-1 draw, while the senior team suffered a shock 2-0 defeat in Guatemala.
Things looked much bleaker for the U-23s five months ago, when they finished third in the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championship. Ousted by Honduras in the semifinal, also by a 2-0 score, the Americans had to beat Canada just to force a home-and-away playoff against CONMEBOL power Colombia.
Then came the questions of form and roster selection in the week leading up to the first leg. As center back Cameron Carter-Vickers was ruled out due to a last-minute injury, technical director Jurgen Klinsmann kept the age-eligible John Brooks (who also wound up getting injured) for his own senior team.
A makeshift back line of Eric Miller, Tim Parker, Matt Miazga and Kellyn Acosta held Colombia at bay admirably, only conceding on a penalty.
It was a mature, albeit at times chaotic, performance reminiscent of the U.S. U-20s' win over the same Colombia in the 2015 U-20 World Cup.
In fact, five of the players who featured in that round-of-16 match are also on hand for the Rio 2016 playoff. The experience should give U.S. players and fans some confidence, but the memories of the subsequent match were far less positive.
Eventual champion Serbia dominated the U-20s in the quarterfinal, who looked spent after their draining encounter with Los Cafeteros. The second match comes four days later again, this time against an opponent that won't be as perplexed about what the U.S. has to offer.
"We went to Colombia and had a real good result, but it doesn't change anything," U.S. manager Andi Herzog said Monday. "We have to have another real good game in the second leg tomorrow. So if we bring out the quality from the players on the field, offensively, defensively, then we win this game. If not, then Colombia is too good for us to qualify, and then we don't deserve it. I said to my players, 'It was good. The first game was good, not perfect, but tomorrow we have to have a real good game to reach our goal to go to Rio.'"
The Americans shouldn't be able to counterattack easily and score in the first five minutes, as they did in sweltering Barranquilla. Their speed in wide areas should no longer provide an element of surprise against a back line that looked just as shaky as the U.S.'s in one-on-one situations.
A head injury that goalkeeper Ethan Horvath suffered at the end of the first half and forced him out adds to the American defensive concerns, although, he has returned to training and is in contention to start again. Backup Cody Cropper has long proven his worth in a U.S. shirt despite playing-time issues on the club level. Nonetheless, the shock factor should be gone—and in many ways, it looked gone after just 45 minutes on Friday.
Colombia just couldn't finish until Acosta's poor tackle on substitute forward Rafael Borre in the 67th minute. Cropper nearly saved the penalty, and he can't be faulted in any way, but the difference between a 1-0 lead and a 1-1 draw heading into the home leg could be massive.
As the U.S. defenders admirably scratched and clawed to keep a second Colombian goal out of the net, the attack flailed, except for Jordan Morris' long-distance effort off the crossbar with the outside of his right foot.
The U.S. needed both luck and skill in equal measure to get out of Barranquilla with a chance to right a historical wrong at home and qualify for just the second Olympics in the last four tries. It'll be a similar sort of game on Tuesday in Texas, but the Americans will likely need a half-chance to find the correct side of the woodwork, a favorable refereeing call to give them a chance on a set piece or another moment of brilliance on the individual level or in a small-numbers combination.
The difference this time could be in confidence, as Herzog believes turning in a positive result on the road makes it the favorite moving forward. Logically, the U.S. should play better at home than it did on the road.
"It will be different," Herzog said. "I expect us to do a better job in possession. We want the Colombian team to chase behind the ball too. That's not the biggest strength for some players. We will see how it works. We go out, we don't want to go for 0-0, because it's really tricky and it's dangerous, so we go out and we want to win the game."
Either way, it's reasonable to say not many saw the U.S. with this kind of chance in the return leg. Certainly, as playoffs around the world in many club and international competitions have shown, anything can happen in 90 minutes.