NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson was in the net for an excrutiating finish for the USA against El Salvador during 2012 Olympic qualifying. (Photo courtesy of MLS)
By Michael Lewis
Like it or not the United States has experienced more failures than success when trying to qualify for the Summer Olympics.
The Americans have been stopped eight times, while qualifying on six occasions.
Mexico has been the No. 1 nemesis with four wins over the USA in elimination games, although Colombia, El Salvador and Bermuda, yes, even Bermuda, have been among the roadblocks as well.
With an Olympic berth on line in Sunday night’s vital Concacaf Men’s Under-20 Championship semifinal match between the USA and Honduras in San Pedro, Honduras on Friday (FS, 9 p.m. ET), here are eight matches that many U.S. soccer observers and fans would rather forget.
U.S. 1, Mexico 1 (1960)
Decades ago, it was difficult for the USA to obtain a result against the Mexicans, whether it was at home or on the road. So, this tie was a moral victory for the Americans, who were eliminated from the aggregate-goals series, 3-1, Nov. 22, 1959 at Rancho Cienega Stadium before 8,200 spectators. El Tri won the first leg in Mexico City, 2-0, Oct. 8, 1959, leaving the USA in a hole. The hosts grabbed an early goal as an Al Zerhusen cross set up Ed Murphy. The Mexican equalized in the 80th minute when Fernando Meza drilled a 40-yard effort past Victor Ottoboni. According to the Los Angeles Times, defenders Herm Wecke and Joe Speca and Ottoboni stood out for the hosts.
Mexico 2, U.S. 1 (1964)
In the last of three matches against as many opponents in Mexico City March 20, 1964, the USA failed to reach the Rome Summer Games via a 2-1 loss to the host team before 10,000 spectators. Mexico became the Concacaf representative. The Americans had dropped a 1-0 result to Suriname March 16 before recording its first Olympic qualifying victory, a 4-2 win over Panama two days later.
Dent McSkimming wrote in the St. Louis Post Dispatch: “The artistic Mexican players brought out their best effort” of the series. Carl Gentile scored the USA’s lone goal.
Interesting footnote: McSkimming, who paid his own way to watch the USA’s historic 1-0 upset of England in Belo Horizonte, Brazil in the 1950 World Cup while he was on vacation, covered this match live for his newspaper. Would have not been surprised if McSkimming paid his way on this one as well.
Bermuda 1, U.S. 0 (1968)
The USA couldn’t get past the opening round. The Americans played a 1-1 draw with Bermuda in Hamilton May 21, 1967 before falling 1-0 before a sparse crowd of 1,375 at Comiskey Park in Chicago May 27. Gladwyn (Bubba) Daniels, who tallied in the draw, fired a 24-yard free kick past goalkeeper Mike Ivanow in the 28th minute. The Bermudans made sure that lead stood up. The U.S. applied pressure on the opposition’s goal behind Ernie Tuchscherer, Neil Stam and Jack Kinealy, but could not hit paydirt. This game did not get wide coverage. Even the Chicago Tribune gave the game a non-bylined story and only four paragraphs.
Mexico 4, U.S. 2 (1976)
A near capacity crowd of 4,700 watch Mexico register a 4-2 win at Baynard Stadium in Wilmington, Del. Aug. 28, 1975, which sealed the Americans’ Olympic fate. The match started on an optimistic note for the hosts, who struck first as Telmo Pires headed home a Myernick corner kick 35 seconds after the opening kickoff. Hugo Sanchez, who went on to star for Real Madrid, equalized with a 16th-minute penalty. The Americans took the lead again, 2-1, in the 58th minute as George Chapla chested in Kevin Welch’s corner kick. The final half hour was all Mexico. Victor Ranger headed in the 2-2 equalizer in the 65th minute before Sanchez buried a rebound past goalkeeper Kurt Kuykendall minutes later. The Mexicans added an insurance goal.
With two minutes remaining, Kuykendall was forced from the game with an injury. Because the USA already had made its allotted two substitutes, midfielder Len Salvemini played the rest of the way in the net.
BTW, the crowd was the largest for a Delaware non-scholastic sporting event since 1952, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Mexico 4, U.S. 0 (2004)
The USA’s string of qualifying or competing at five consecutive Olympics was broken with a 4-0 defeat to Mexico in Guadalajara Feb. 10, 2004. Coach Ricardo Lavolpe’s entertained a capacity crowd of 60,000 at Estadio Jalisco. The defeated snapped a streak of 19 successive FIFA-sponsored world championships (that started in 1995) for which the USA had qualified (Under-17 and U-20 men’s and women’s, U-23 men, women’s and men’s Olympics and World Cups.
The visitors might have realized there were in for a long night even before kickoff. The U.S. national anthem was booed before it was whistled and drowned out by chants of “Mex-i-co! Mex-i-co!” Jones wrote. The host side, according to Los Angeles Times sportswriter Grahame L. Jones, was “faster to the ball, quick in their reading of the game, more precise in their overall play,” adding, “the Mexican players provided a lesson that will be remembered for a long time.
El Tri scored twice within a three-minute span in the middle of the first half. Rafael Marquez Lugo (no, not that Rafa Marquez) headed a Diego Martinez cross past keeper D.J. Countess in the 25th minute before Martinez doubled the lead in the 28th minute and the rout was on. Marquez made it 3-0 in the 54th minute before sub Ismael Iniguez put the final nail in the U.S. coffin in the waning seconds. It didn’t help that USA defender Nate Borchers was red carded in the 73rd minute after he was awarded his second yellow card.
Forwards Landon Donovan and Eddie Johnson did not see much of the ball to pull the USA out of the hole.
“There were too many times tonight when our defenders didn’t do a good enough job of slowing the attack down,” Myernick was quoted by the Miami Herald.
U.S. 3, El Salvador 3 (2012)
It was as devastating a result and setback in recent U.S. soccer history as anyone could recall. Clinging to a 3-2 lead while playing on American soil, the U.S. U-23 national team surrendered a goal four minutes into stoppage time that squashed the hosts’ chances of reaching the London Summer Olympics March 26.
Needless to say, the 3-3 draw with El Salvador left the Americans stunned and devastated and as outsiders as they failed to reach the semifinals of the Concacaf qualifying tournament at LP Field on Monday night. The U.S. failed to qualify for the Summer Games for the only the second time since 1976.
The U.S. had qualified for six of the past seven Olympics, making the early elimination from the qualifying tournament only that much more bitter.
“This is probably the worst feeling I’ve ever felt in my life so far as a pro athlete,” U.S. captain and midfielder Freddy Adu said. “This is going to be hard to get over. . . . I never want to feel this way again, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to never feel this way again.”
After midfielder Jaime Alas scored his dramatic, 25-yard goal past goalkeeper Sean Johnson, the virtually the entire U.S. team collapsed onto LP Field in shock and disbelief.
“For us, it’s a nightmare right now, because we were the team that had the most talent, I think,” said forward Terrence Boyd, who scored two goals as he started in place of Teal Bunbury.
For U.S. coach Caleb Porter, who has celebrated the highest of highs in college soccer by leading the University of Akron to a pair of Division I championships, this was the lowest of lowest. “I never felt anything like this in my life,” he said. “It’s a painful moment.”
The Americans found themselves in a must-win situation after they suffered a stunning 2-0 defeat to Canada Saturday night. “That was the thing that broke our neck,” Boyd said.
Then Alas’ broke their hearts.
The Americans had grabbed a 3-2 lead on Joe Corona’s five-yard effort off Adu’s second assist in the 68th minute.
Now, they had to protect the lead over the final 22 minutes of regulation and four minutes of stoppage time.
“All the minutes after our third goal felt very, very long, like hours,” said Mix Diskerud, a future member of New York City FC. “But I thought we were going to make it.”
Alas made sure the Americans wouldn’t, beating Johnson. The future NYCFC keeper had come on for Bill Hamid, who left the game with an ankle injury in the 39th minute. El Salvador coach Mauricio Alfaro told his team that he noticed Johnson was nervous and to shoot. Alas followed his instructions to the letter, sending a one-bouncer that Johnson failed to handle
“He feels like he’s let everyone down, his teammates down,” Porter said. “I didn’t think so.
“I just hugged him. Cried a little.”
A sullen and somber Porter said he told his team “that this won’t define their careers. As low as this moment is for them and as painful as it is, they’ve got big days ahead – a lot of those guys that were out on that field. That’s the future of our country.
“It’s sad that I’m not going to get a chance to be in the trenches with those guys anymore. They did everything I asked. They made some mistakes that cost us the game. The guys have long careers ahead of them. I’m proud of those guys and I know they’re going to do great things in the future. I’m sorry for our fans, sorry for U.S. Soccer that we didn’t get the job done. But there’s nothing to be ashamed about.”
Colombia 2, U.S. 1 (2016)
The Americans seemed to have everything going for it in their playoff series against Colombia March 29. But they failed to build on the 1-1 draw in Barranquilla, Colombia four days prior, falling to the Colombians, 2-1 in Frisco, Texas, failing to reach the Olympics for the second successive time. Roger Martinez, who played for Racing in Argentina, scored in the 30th and 64th minutes for Colombia. The U.S. tallied on a 58th-minute own goal, before 7,998 fans at Toyota Stadium.
Colombia changed its front pairing, going with Guillermo Celis, who had competed for the national team in Bolivia in South American World Cup qualifying the previous week) and Martinez, with Juan Fernando Quintero in support. The Colombians produced most of the first-half chances and carried momentum into the final half.
Martinez threatened early, with goalkeeper Ethan Horvath making a diving save in the sixth minute. Following a short corner, Horvath made a spectacular save on Yerry Mina’s diving header in the 18th minute. Martinez converted his first goal inside the right post after Andreas Roa drilled a left-footed shot into the goal area off a Helibelton Palacios cross.
But the U.S. tied the score, defender Deiver Machado heading into the Colombia goal as Emerson Hyndman lofted a pass for substitute Jerome Kiesewetter.
Machado compensated by setting up the deciding goal. Machado went forward on the left, centering for Martinez, who controlled near the penalty spot, avoided center back Tim Parker, a former Red Bull, and finished past Horvath.
It got worse. Needing at least two goals to advance, the U.S. went forward but lost Luis Gil to a second caution in the 77th minute. Defender Matt Miazga, another former Red Bull, was red-carded by Uzbek referee Ravshan Irmatov after committing a foul as the last man back, in the 90th minute.
Honduras 2, U.S. 1 (2021)
Same old, same old, same old.
For the third consecutive Olympics, the United States Under-23 team will be spectators for soccer tournament.
The Americans could not dig out of a two-goal home early in the second half and succumbed to Honduras, 2-1, in the Concacaf Men’s Olympic Qualifying semifinals in Guadalajara, Mexico Sunday night, March 28, 2021.
The USA men’s side hasn’t qualified for the Summer Games for 13 years or since the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The Red, White and Blue failed to reach the 2012 and 2016 Games. This drought has tied the longest drought when the U.S. failed to book at spot at the 1960, 1964 and 1968 tournaments.
Now the Americans must wait three years before trying to reach the 2024 Paris Olympics.
“Obviously we’re devastated, absolutely devastated in a locker room,” USA head coach Jason Kreis said. “The guys are like it’s a tragedy, a tragedy. We all wanted this so bad, so badly for so many different reasons. And I think could be that sometimes when you want it too bad. You put yourself in a position where you can’t perform to the level needed. At the end of the day, you know, I just don’t think we had enough.”
Failing to reach any major tournament is rough. This one possibly hurt more because one of the goals was self inflicted, a major mistake by goalkeeper David Ochoa on Honduras’ second goal.
Asked what were some of the reasons why the USA struggled in the tournament and did not qualify, Kreis replied, “There’s a lot of considerations. First and foremost just the time of the year that the qualification is in. I think it puts an American team in a difficult place because of the fact that we are just now entering preseason.I felt like last year the timing of it was a little bit better because the MLS season I’d already played three or four matches. So I think that’s difficult.
“The only solution I would say there is that if you can get the European players that are in mid-season, then perhaps you’re in better shape but we all know the difficulties of that as well. Those are the couple of things that jumped out to me that just make it a difficult prospect. Not to say that we weren’t good enough to get it done because I do believe we had enough quality in our team. WEe had enough ability in our team, we had enough fight and commitment, but just at the end of it, tonight I just didn’t think it was quite enough.”
Except for the four-goal explosion against the Dominican Republic in the group stage, the USA struggling, scoring only twice in their three other matches.
“I just think again it just comes down to general sharpness of players,” Kreis said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a game where we’ve had players miss control the ball so much. Balls rolling under people’s feet, passing out of bounds. These are things that are just really, you kind of scratch your head and you think what’s what’s going on here. But I also have been around the game enough in our country at a pro level to tell you this is what you see in preseasons … at the beginning of MLS seasons. It’s typical.
“On the quality in the final third I felt like we got there enough times were just lacking for me mostly the last pass but then we even got into areas where we should finish and we don’t.”
The Hondurans, who qualified for the Summer Games for the fourth consecutive time, scored only minutes on either side of halftime to turn the game on its end.
Four minutes into first-half stoppage time, Edwin Rodriguez sent a free kick from the right side some 40 yards to the far post, where Denil Maldonado headed it back across goal. Juan Carlos Obregon held off his defender and directed the ball forward into Ochoa, continued his momentum and pushed the ball across the goal line.
Two minutes into the second half, Ochoa produced a gaffe for the ages. After taking a backpass, Ochoa hesitated for a second before kicking the ball up field. It was questionable strategy as Luis Palma blocked it and sent it into the goal for a 2-0 Honduran margin.
“We knew that Honduras was a good side,” said U.S. captain Jackson Yueill, who scored his team’s lone goal. “Our game plan was to come out and take the ball to them and try to get a couple goals early. We were lacking a little bit in the first half. Now, it’s a hot game and I think difficult conditions in these tournaments. But overall I think the guys fought really hard and gave it to the end, just unfortunate to come out with the, with the loss but proud of the team and the effort that they gave it all until the last second.”
Yueill pulled one back for the Americans in the 52nd minute when he hit a screamer into the lower side of the net to slice the deficit to 2-1.
The USA essentially laid siege to the Honduran goal for the final 20 minutes as defenders either cleared misplaced passes or shot. The Honduras goalkeeper saved a Yueill free kick in the 69th minute.
Kreis said he already had regrets about some of the decisions he made before and during the tournament.
“This is who I am as a person,” he said. “I will look first and foremost at myself and think back about the decisions that were made about the roster, about the form of the players that were coming in, the players that weren’t here, absolutely. Anybody that knows anything about me knows that I point the finger at myself absolutely first. Having said that it’s a collective effort. It wasn’t just me making those decisions. But I’m more than willing and able to take the brunt of the blame, no problem.”