Freddy Adu enjoyed the game of a lifetime against Canada during 2008 qualifying. (Wade Jackson/YCJ Photo)
By Michael Lewis
Since Concacaf instituted a qualifying tournament for the Olympic soccer tournament in 1960, the United States men’s team, whether it was an amateur team or an Under-23 side, has secured berths in six Summer Games.
Those were in 1972, 1980, 1988, 1992, 2000 and 2008. The USA also participated in the 1984 and 1996 Summer Games because it was the host side.
With an Olympic berth on the line in Friday night’s vital Concacaf Men’s U-20 Championship semifinal match between the USA and host Honduras in San Pedro, Honduras, here are the six matches that vaulted the Americans into the Olympics.
U.S. 2, Jamaica 1 (1972)
The 7,198 spectators at Busch Stadium in St. Louis certainly were an enthusiastic bunch, shouting “Munich!” when the USA clinched its first Olympic spot in 16 years with a win over the Reggae Boyz May 14, 1972. Four days after earning a 2-2 tie with Mexico (Mike Seerey scored both goals) in San Francisco, the Americans broke its 16-year drought in the second game of a doubleheader. St. Louis native John Carenza assisted on Manny Hernandez’s goal in the 22nd minute and scored the game-winner in the 36th minute on a Seerey assist. Jamaica’s Leonard Mason beat goalkeeper Mike Ivanow in the 52nd minute. In the opening match, the St. Louis Stars edged the Atlanta Chiefs, 2-1, to take the North American Soccer League’s Southern Division lead.
U.S. 1, Costa Rica 1 (1980)
Sometimes a tie isn’t like kissing your sister or brother. Sometimes it means you have clinched an Olympic berth. The Americans played the Central American side to a 1-1 draw in Edwardsville, Ill. March 25. Don Ebert scored the USA’s lone goal. The game was set up by the Americans’ 1-0 win in San Jose, Costa Rica March 20 as Ebert converted a penalty kick late in the match. To truly appreciate the accomplishment, the U.S. men’s national team has never won in Costa Rica (0-10-1). Unfortunately, the USA never played at the Moscow Summer Games due to the Olympic boycott.
U.S. 4, El Salvador 2 (1988)
Sometimes there is perfect symmetry in soccer. Hugo Perez scored a goal in each half against the country of his birth in San Salvador Oct. 18, 1987. Brent Goulet tallied in the fourth minute and Frank Klopas found the net five minutes later. Perez’s 19th-minute free kick made it 3-0. After El Salvador pulled one back, Perez scored off an Eric Eichmann cross in the 65th minute before the hosts closed out the scoring seven minutes later. This resulted in the three-team Group A essentially clinched a berth for the Americans at the Seoul Olympics, although the team would have to wait seven months for it to become official. Players expected the May 25, 1988 rematch in Indianapolis to be the clincher, but the USA advanced when El Salvador lost to Trinidad & Tobago, 1-0.
U.S. 3, Mexico 0 (1992)
The Americans pulled off a pair of stunning results with a 31-day period in 1992. First, it was a 2-1 triumph over El Tri in Mexico City March 25. Then came a 3-0 victory over their rivals at Goodman Stadium on the Lehigh University campus in Bethlehem, Pa. April 26. With two qualifiers remaining, the USA’s 4-0 record clinched a berth at the Barcelona Games. Steve Snow connected for a goal in each half (31st and 80th minutes), sandwiched around a 36th-minute Chris Henderson score in front of 13,927 fans. The Mexicans played the final 13 minutes a man down after keeper Miguel Fuentes was ejected for pulling down Cobi Jones on the edge of the penalty area. Goalkeeper Brad Friedel secured his third clean sheet as he backstopped all 10 qualifiers. Future National Soccer Hall of Famers Alexi Lalas, Joe-Max Moore, Reyna, Jones and Friedel played in this historic encounter.
U.S. 4, Guatemala 0 (2000)
Months after leading the U.S. to a fourth-place finish at the 1999 FIFA Under -17 World Cup, an 18-year-old Landon Donovan made his highly anticipated Under-23 debut with a brace in a 4-0 semifinal victory April 28, securing a spot at the Sydney Olympics. John O’Brien scored only 52 seconds after kickoff via a Chris Albright assist before 12,299 spectators at Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey, Pa. Josh Wolff added another seven minutes later before Donovan took center stage with scores in 22nd and 90th minutes. Goalkeeper Adin Brown earned the shutout. The USA lost to Honduras in the championship, but that result did not matter as the Americans already had qualified.
U.S. 3, Canada 0 (2008)
After his magnificent two-goal performance boosted the United States into the Beijing Olympics and dashed Canada’s hopes in a 3-0 triumph in Nashville, Tenn. March 20, captain Freddy Adu revealed to the world of his secret on how to take free kicks. Adu said he spoke with U.S. coach Peter Nowak, assistant coach Lubos Kubik and the rest of the coaching staff. He said they had “stressed in those kind of situations that you want to hit the ball hard on the goal. If the keeper never touches it, that ball is going into the back of the net.” That strategy worked perfectly as the Americans clinched their first Olympic berth since the 2000 Summer Games and 14th overall.
“It’s a great, great thing,” Adu said. “The Olympics is great. Everybody watches it. I watched it growing up. It’s just an honor to represent your country in such a big event. I’m proud to have an opportunity to go and especially to go with this group of guys. It was great. There was a lot of hard work behind it.”
Canada coach Nick Dasovic realized Adu’s free kicks were a thing of beauty. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he had to like it. “I hate it,” he said. “He’s a clinician at that stuff. … We talked about keeping our fouls to a minimum around the box. Unfortunately, we did not follow our game plan. He’s in front of the goal with that much time on the ball. He likes to pick a spot.”
Sacha Kljestan, a future Red Bulls captain, punctuated the victory, scoring off a Stuart Holden pass in the 78th minute feed. Goalkeeper Chris Seitz recorded the shutout.
That was the last time the USA men reached the Olympics.