An Olympic men’s soccer berth does not come close to carrying the importance of qualifying for the World Cup, but the U.S. program’s inability to secure passage to the Summer Games had become a source of quadrennial embarrassment.
The breakthrough came in the semifinals of the Concacaf under-20 tournament in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, which served as the qualifiers of both the 2023 U-20 World Cup in Indonesia and 2024 Olympics in Paris.
Paxten Aaronson (Philadelphia Union) scored in the third minute, Alejandro Alvarado Jr. (Vizela, Portugal) extended the lead in the 22nd and Quinn Sullivan (Philadelphia Union) added a 43rd-minute goal.
Dominican Republic, an afterthought in the pre-tournament forecasts, earned Concacaf’s other berth by defeating Guatemala in a shootout, 4-2, after coming back from a two-goal deficit in regulation for a 2-2 draw.
All four semifinalists qualified for the U-20 World Cup. On Sunday, the Americans will attempt to win their third consecutive Concacaf U-20 title.
To prevent it from stealing the World Cup’s thunder, Olympic men’s soccer has been an under-23 competition (with three roster exceptions) since 1992. Though the Summer Games lack the prestige of the World Cup, the United States, a 2000 Olympic semifinalist, found itself failing to even qualify the previous three attempts and in four of five tries.
Usually, the qualifying tournament involves under-23 teams, but Concacaf decided to switch to a younger age group, hold a dual competition and conduct the event earlier in the four-year Olympic cycle.
With a roster of many MLS homegrown players, the Americans have a 5-0-1 record and 25-2 goal differential in this tournament.
On Friday, they got off to a dream start on a goal by Aaronson, the younger brother of Brenden Aaronson, a U.S. senior national team attacker. Brandan Craig served a free kick that Aaronson redirected into the net from close range for his fifth goal of the tournament.
Midway through the half, Mauricio Cuevas set up Alvarado for a one-timer deep in the box. And just before halftime, Sullivan tapped in the ball after Caden Clark wheeled around the goalkeeper and placed a low shot on target.
Honduras applied pressure throughout the second half, but Chris Brady recorded the team’s fifth shutout. Craig hit the post with an 83rd-minute free kick and Honduras’s Jefryn Macías was red-carded in the 87th.
The defeat ended Honduras’s streak of four consecutive Olympic appearances. In each of the previous two qualifying tournaments, the Hondurans defeated the United States in the qualifying-clinching semifinal.
D.C. United midfielder Jackson Hopkins, who turned 18 on Friday, entered in the 71st minute.