The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Devastated’ U.S. men again fail to make Olympics, fall to Honduras in soccer qualifier

Dejected U.S. players react to Honduras taking the lead late in the first half on a goal by New York-born Juan Carlos Obregón Jr. (Fernando Llano/AP)

The U.S. men’s soccer program has made substantial strides over the past few years by placing a young cast in prominent European clubs and rebuilding the national team. It’s a promising sign for the 2022 World Cup and beyond.

But while the senior squad is making notable progress, the under-23 team continues to falter on an important stage, failing Sunday to qualify for the Olympics for the third consecutive cycle and the fourth time in five tries.

Honduras scored on the final touch of the first half — on a goal by a native New Yorker — then took advantage of a ghastly goalkeeping mistake shortly after intermission to defeat the United States, 2-1, in the Concacaf tournament semifinals in Guadalajara, Mexico.

The Hondurans also eliminated the Americans in the 2016 qualifying semifinals in greater Salt Lake City.

“We’re devastated, absolutely devastated,” Coach Jason Kreis said. “A tragedy.”

The dichotomy of the men’s program was on full display Sunday. Hours before the U-23 failure, a senior squad featuring several young stars unavailable for the Olympic qualifiers extended its unbeaten streak to nine by defeating Northern Ireland, 2-1, its first road victory against a European opponent in almost six years.

The Olympic men’s tournament is for players 23 and under (actually 24 this year because of the one-year pandemic delay), and many of U.S. soccer’s best are in that age group. However, FIFA, the sport’s global governing body, does not require clubs to release players for U-23 competitions.

So Kreis’s squad relied almost entirely on players from MLS, which is in preseason. The top age-eligible Americans, such as Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna and Sergiño Dest, were with the senior squad the past week for two friendlies.

Honduras will join Mexico at the Summer Games in Tokyo, its fourth consecutive appearance. The Americans last qualified in 2008, a source of frustration and embarrassment.

Missing the Olympics is not as bad as missing the World Cup, as the senior squad did last cycle, but, Kreis said: “We lost an opportunity to play in an international tournament with more pressure, where these players have to be in these environments and continue to improve with that pressure. It is a missed opportunity.”

To prepare, the delegation arrived in Guadalajara weeks before the tournament started. Warning signs showed in the group stage, in which the United States finished second to Mexico and never hit its stride.

And against Honduras, the Americans were bland in the first half and, despite a spirited second-half effort and sensational goal by captain Jackson Yueill, the comeback fell short.

“I do believe we had enough quality in our team, we had enough ability, we had enough fight and commitment,” Kreis said, “but at the end of it, I didn’t think it was quite enough.”

Kreis pinned some blame on the time of the year, when MLS players are in preseason fitness and form.

“The only solution is if we can get the European players that are in midseason,” Kreis said. “Perhaps you’re in better shape, but we all know the difficulties of that as well.”

Only four European-based players were released by their respective clubs, none of whom are top-line national team figures.

The United States was nearing a much-needed halftime reboot when disaster struck.

A long ball found Denil Maldonado racing unmarked into the back side of the penalty area. Maldonado headed it across the six-yard box to hard-charging Juan Carlos Obregón Jr.

The ball caromed off the forward’s hip, struck sprawling goalkeeper David Ochoa in the chest, hit Obregón again and crossed the goal line.

The Brooklyn-born Obregón played at Siena College and most recently with the Rio Grande Valley Toros, a second-division club in Edinburg, Tex.

Less than a minute into the second half, matters deteriorated on a gaffe by Ochoa, who had performed well in his two previous appearances.

Ochoa accepted a back pass from Aaron Herrera and attempted to play the ball upfield, a routine situation for a keeper. Ochoa was too casual, and when he tried to slide the ball back to Herrera, Luis Palma stabbed at it with his left foot and deflected it into the net.

If conceding a goal seconds before halftime was deflating, this was devastating: a second goal about a minute later in a match played in 90-degree heat and with Mexican fans arriving for the second semifinal throwing support behind the Hondurans.

The Americans, though, responded in the 52nd minute. Yueill took advantage of a pocket of space and, with a clinical strike, sent a 25-yard thunderbolt into the top left corner of the net.

Yueill threatened to tie it in the 69th minute, but Alex Güity made a diving save on a 22-yard free kick.

The Americans sustained pressure the rest of the match, including Johnny Cardoso’s clear header deep into stoppage time, but the end was painfully familiar.

“As the game went on, we were able to get adjusted to a few things and create more chances,” Yueill said. “But in these tournaments, we know it starts in the first half, and you can’t give anything away.”

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