Plenty at stake as U.S. Under-23s final face hurdle ahead of Olympics

In 2014, Jurgen Klinsmann didn’t attempt to hide his dismay at the Olympic qualifying breakdown from two years before. Between 2012 and then, Klinsmann had added a U.S. technical director title to his resume, but his opinion on the qualifying failure for the London Olympics hadn’t cooled.

If anything, it had intensified. He termed that shortcoming a missed opportunity. He called those players - Brek Shea, Juan Agudelo, Perry Kitchen and others - a lost generation.

A year later, he redoubled on those sentiments, echoing just how important the head of the American soccer tree views the Olympics from a developmental perspective.

"There's a lot at stake," Klinsmann told ESPN’s Doug McIntyre in a 2015 interview. "If we don't qualify for the Olympics, we lose another generation of young players. Not qualifying for the Confederations Cup, you lose a huge advantage to prepare for Russia 2018. The older players have a lot at stake because there might come a cut after that. Are we holding on to them through the next year of World Cup qualifiers, or is this the time now to start fresh? It's going to be a huge decision-making moment."

And here we are. The defining fork in the road has arrived, and another generation is fighting a path that would lead them into the same wilderness as the group before it.

The U.S. U-23 national team faces down Colombia in the first of its two-legged series on Friday in Barranquilla (3 p.m. PT; FS1/UDN). At stake is a trip to the 2016 Rio Olympics, and the U.S. has never felt the pressing need to qualify more. If you push aside Klinsmann’s overarching sentiments, it is an important match for simple experience’s sake. More games at a higher level is a good thing, and allowing players to prove themselves on this stage can only benefit them in the long run.

By his own admission, qualifying for the Olympics (or not) will be a referendum on the Klinsmann administration’s ability to put players in pressure situations in the biggest tournaments. In 2012, the U.S. failed under the guidance of coach Caleb Porter, who was approved and appointed by Klinsmann. In 2016, Andi Herzog, Klinsmann’s own coaching right hand, is guiding these U23s.

Needless to say, failing to qualify for two consecutive Olympics would be a disaster. And the process of avoiding it begins Friday.

The only problem? A stacked Colombia team stands in their way.

What the U.S. does on Friday from an attacking point of view will almost certainly depend on the kind of day Jordan Morris has in Herzog’s favored 4-4-2 formation. There’s plenty of attacking talent to go around on this U.S. team, but Colombia is set up to dominate the run of play. Indeed, there’s a reason this Colombia team is on the verge of becoming the first from its nation to qualify for the Olympics since 2004 out of a comically loaded CONMEBOL.

Of course there is Porto loanee Juan Fernando Quintero, who is working his way up the ladder at Rennes in France. Meanwhile, striker Andres Renteria has scored 21 goals for Santos Laguna in Mexico since 2013. Attacking talent abounds here, and the U.S. will almost certainly be playing on the counter for the majority of the afternoon. How it absorbs pressure will be key. Expect to see plenty of action for new Chelsea signee and New York Red Bulls product Matt Miazga down the spine.

That’s why Morris’s role is so crucial on Friday. With the possibility of Columbus Crew SC midfielder Wil Trapp playing a more energetic Andrea Pirlo role - drop deep and distribute - Morris’s speed and substance up top will be important. Find him galloping in space to break the Colombia back line’s press and you have something. If Morris and electric winger Jerome Kiesewetter continue their Batman-and-Robin routine on Friday, the U.S. might escape this fracas with enough life to have a shot in Frisco, Texas in the second leg.

From an American perspective, there is perhaps some question as to why age-eligible players with full national team experience - names like John Brooks and former Sounders defender DeAndre Yedlin - are not here. Klinsmann opted to pull both into the full national team for World Cup qualifying, a decision that could play a role in this Colombia series. The U.S. doesn’t have a like-for-like replacement at right back for Yedlin, which could pull Kellyn Acosta away from his more dutiful role as a defensive midfielder. Acosta has almost always been seen as a defensive midfielder at FC Dallas and almost always as a fullback on the national team level. Herzog will have to play with his options.

What’s more, the U.S. only put itself in this position by falling down in qualifying. After mopping up its group in CONCACAF late last year, the U.S. was outclassed by Honduras in a 2-0 game dominated by Olimpia forward Alberth Elis, a name Sounders fans will be familiar with. The U.S. was forced to beat Canada in a third-place game just to get to this point.

Colombia, meanwhile, qualified out of CONMEBOL thanks to a smashing 3-0 win over Brazil behind a brace from 19-year-old Joao Rodriguez and a goal from Jarlan Barrera, the second cousin of renowned Colombian midfielder Carlos Valderrama. Barrera is on Colombia’s roster this week. Perhaps even more impressively, Colombia was minutes away from beating eventual champion Argentina in the final stage before the Argentines leveled at 1-1 in the 88th minute.

Tactically, the U.S. will hope to weather the Colombian storm away from home with enough grace to return with a chance to make it a boat race to the finish line on home soil.

The underlying story in all this is how a possible failure to qualify for another Olympics would be received by a Klinsmann administration that has already pinned grand importance on the competition. Would it trigger changes? Or a tacit admission that the ship isn’t quite sailing as Klinsmann would have hoped now five years into his tenure?

On the field, the U.S. will hope to avoid those soul-searching questions by taking care of business and booking a spot in its first Olympic games in eight years. The first step of that process begins Friday.

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