U.S. Soccer’s struggle to qualify for the Olympics is over as the U.S. U-20 team trounced Honduras 3-0 in San Pedro Sula to book a ticket to Paris in 2024. ASN’s Brian Sciaretta breaks down the win and the accomplishment
August 02, 2022
AFTER AN ABSENCE dating back to 2008 and three failed qualifying attempts, the United States will be returning to the Olympic games in 2024 thanks to a brilliant performance from the U.S. U-20 team on Friday night. Playing away against Honduras in San Pedro Sula in the semifinals of the CONCACAF U-20 championships, the U.S. team played a flawless first half en route to a 3-0 victory.
This was indeed a tough assignment for head coach Mikey Varas and his young U.S. team as Honduras has a good team and a very tough home field advantage. A hostile, capacity crowd awaited the U.S. team in San Pedro Sula and the U.S. team silenced them in the opening minutes.
Central defender Brandan Craig delivered a dangerous free kick from the left side that found his Philadelphia Union teammate Paxten Aaronson making an open run in the box. The New Jersey native then finished from close range. It was his second consecutive game where he has scored in the opening minutes.
Aaronson! 1-0 US pic.twitter.com/dGrrcQEfMW
— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) July 2, 2022
The U.S. continued to keep the pressure up and it was rewarded in the 22nd minute when Mauricio Cuevas sent a cross into the box and Alejandro Alvarado finished with a nifty shot off the outside of his foot underneath Honduran goalkeeper Jurgen Garcia for a 2-0 lead.
What a start! To get a 2-0 lead early in Honduras, in a Olympic do-or-die? Amazing. Alvarado! pic.twitter.com/h9btrveRfP
— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) July 2, 2022
Finally, just before halftime the U.S. made it 3-0 when Caden Clark rounded the defense on the left side and hit a shot from a tight angle. It got past Garcia, but Quinn Sullivan was there to tap it in for his sixth goal of the tournament – and it was the 12th goal scored by a Philadelphia Union player this tournament.
3-0 U.S! Sullivan puts it away after Clark makes the goal! pic.twitter.com/bY9ezQoKeS
— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) July 2, 2022
Soon afterward, the whistle sounded, and the teams headed to the locker room. The U.S. team had a 3-0 lead and it was a near-perfect half of soccer to put the game under their complete control.
The second half was far more even. Honduras stepped it up and the U.S. team sat back more to absorb pressure. It wasn’t until later in the half when Honduras began generating decent chances. Their best came in the 75th minute when Jefryn Macias hit a shot just wide from a tight angle.
The U.S. still had its chances, and its best came in the 81st when a free kick from Craig hit the woodwork from 25 yards out.
As the half moved on, the game became more physical and dangerous. Macias was sent off for Honduras after a studs-up tackle.
The referee sensed the game was running the risk of injuries, and blew the final whistle with no stoppage time.
“I am very proud,” Varas said after the game. “I am proud of the boys. They took on this experience, this challenge. The crowd was incredible. Honduras, they fought like crazy and a lot of credit to them. But I feel like the boys showed bravery, relentlessness, and they were together at every single moment.”
Qualifying is a big deal
Qualifying for the Olympics is a big deal to U.S. Soccer. The fact that the men have failed to qualify for three straight cycles was a black mark on the program. That string of failures also compounded the pressure on the following qualifying cycles.
But this was the first time that Olympic qualifying fell in the hands of the U-20 team, as opposed to the U-23 team. The team qualified for the World Cup on Tuesday night, but all eyes were on this team to qualify for the Olympics.
This team did not disappoint, and it handed its effort in a very mature way, despite its youth. The players were not intimidated by the hostile environment and the players knew they had to take it to Honduras early – which they did.
The benefits for such an effort are huge. Qualifying for the Olympics in 2024 is huge. It will now provide for a huge opportunity for players to gain international experience as they look to make cases to be part of the full national team.
The Olympics is a U-23 tournament, as opposed to the U-20 level. This means that the 2001 and 2002 birth year players will be able to be included. This U-23 team is the 2003 birth year and younger. Now this opens up even more players to compete for spots in Paris. Combined with the U-20 World Cup in 2023, there will be a steady stream of international tournaments to help build up the next generation and offer them experiences.
“We talked to the boys that this was a moment we could do something selfless for our country because the Olympics will actually be for an older age group,” head coach Mikey Varas said. “Possibly, a lot of these guys won’t be part of that. But we wanted to make sure we changed the history. We not only got the rematch for our last cycle, which we ended up losing against Honduras, but we were helping our future cycles also.”
There is also a huge PR element too. The Olympics are very important in the United States and having the men’s team compete in Paris will only build up even more enthusiasm for the program heading into a big 2026 year when the United States will host a majority of the World Cup.
Athleticism is key
This U.S. U-20 team doesn’t just have skill, but it also has a high degree of athleticism. That is what makes this team very dangerous at the youth levels. When you have skill, it is one thing. But combining it with speed, size, and strength makes it very difficult to stop. Edelman’s athleticism to cover ground was important. Alvarado also has an impressive degree too.
That mixes well into the way Varas wants to play – with constant pressing, quick transitions, and being lethal in the open field.
Edelman & McGlynn
While neither player scored or assisted, a big reason why the U.S. team had such a strong performance in the game was the play of central midfielders Jack McGlynn and Daniel Edelman. In the first half, both players were instrumental in defending in front of the backline and then linking the ball into the attack.
Edelman had a huge pass in the buildup to the team’s second goal. McGlynn’s passing in the first half was so sharp.
Both players are not just core players but both are players that the U.S. team should feel very good about as they build towards the U-20 World Cup next year.
Aaronson: tournament MVP
Among all the participating teams at the CONCACAF U-20 Championships, Paxten Aaronson has been the best player in this tournament, so far. He has delivered at all the big moments and has constantly put opposing teams on their heels. He has had a tremendous impact on the U.S. team’s run to the finals.
But he has shown the complete package. He is a good finisher, a very good creator, and his motor can also allow him to contribute defensively and press the entire game.
????? “I couldn’t be happier, I couldn’t be more proud of this team”.
Paxten Aaronson, @USYNT. ???????? pic.twitter.com/P4nsq0vKc8
— Concacaf (@Concacaf) July 2, 2022
So what is next for Aaronson after Sunday’s final? He will return to the Philadelphia Union and while he has been a starter for Jim Curtin this year, it is easy to see him taking on a bigger role. Curtin will want to play him more. To be fair, Daniel Gazdag has been very effective for Philadelphia and has understandably made it hard on the younger Aaronson.
But Philadelphia has built up a very impressive academy that is churning out good players on a consistent basis. Curtin knows he must play him to make the academy system work. He also knows Aaronson can get the job done. It would not surprise me if he was waiting until after the CONCACAF tournament for him to start getting more serious minutes to Aaronson, along with Sullivan and McGlynn. Brandon Craig has a tougher task to start.
Defense holds up
Coming into this tournament, central defense was always key. The team had an impressive list of prospects at all the other positions in the attack and in the midfield, but for the team to be successful, central defense needed to hold up.
Against Honduras, it very much did. Brandon Craig and Markus Ferkranus got the job done. For Ferkranus, he was a bit of a surprise getting the assignment to start because Jalen Neal had been effective. But Ferkranus did well.
In the first half, they were able to participate more in the possession game and in passing out of the back. In the second half, they had to shift to more defensive responsibilities and occasionally in emergency defending.
Craig is particularly interesting because, most of the time, he is the top free kick taker on the team.
Big year for American Soccer
Last year in 2021, it was a good year for American soccer as the U.S. team won the Gold Cup, the Nations League, and got off to a good start in World Cup qualifying.
But the first half of 2022 has been even better because reversed negative trends and built them up with positive stories – both at the international and club levels.
First, the full national team qualified for the World Cup to help further erase the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
Second, the Seattle Sounders won the CONCACAF Champions League to become the first MLS team to win the tournament. Along the way, they beat two Liga MX teams and further helped improve the reputation of the nation’s top domestic league.
Third and finally, the U.S. U-20 team qualified for the U-20 World Cup and ended the Olympic drought.
Those are massive steps in the right direction.
Looking ahead to the Dominican Republic
Even with qualifying for both tournaments secure, there is a final on Sunday. It is a bit of an after thought given that the opponent won’t be Mexico or any of the top teams in CONCACAF. Instead it will be the Dominican Republic, which is on an incredible Cinderella run.
At the start of the week, the Dominican Republic had never qualified for a FIFA tournament at any level. Four days later, it has qualified for the U-20 World Cup and the Olympics. It is an outcome that nobody expected.
Both teams will come into this game relieved to be there and both having achieved their top objectives. It is a final, but for either team, it is not close to being as important as the two previous games. If it was the U.S. vs. Mexico, then it would be important just due to the rivalry alone. But it is not.
Varas has a lot to consider. He has to see how recovered the players are. There is just one rest day between now and the final. He cannot risk playing players who are at risk for an injury. With Cade Cowell suspended, he only has 19 players and cannot rotate everyone. He will probably rotate as much as possible.
For seeding purposes at the U-20 World Cup, winning the tournament is important. Also, it would be the third straight time the U.S. team has won it having also lifted the trophy in 2017 and 2019. The U.S. will need to rotate heavily, but also be prepared to make offensive subs if needed.
Predicted U.S. U-20 XI vs. The Dominican Republic: Carrera; Cuevas, Ferkranus, Neal, Allen; Pukstas, Hopkins, Tsakiris; Luna, Wolff, Sullivan
“100% – every day we go on the field, we try to compete,” Varas said. “We embrace competition at every moment. The championship is the next step.”