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Olympic Qualifying

U.S. U-23s vs. Colombia: A Deep Dive Into a Key Clash

Will the U.S. men be shut out of two consecutive Olympics? We will find out soon enough, as the two-game playoff begins Friday. Check out Josh Deaver's in-depth playoff preview. 
BY Josh Deaver Posted
March 24, 2016
2:00 PM

LAST WEEK Colombian under-23 men’s national team head coach Carlos Restrepo released his final 25-man roster for the upcoming Olympic qualifying series against the United States. The games, to be held on March 25 (5pm ET; Fox Sports 1, UDN) in Barranquilla and March 29 in Frisco, Texas (9:30pm ET, ESPN2), will determine the final nation to punch their ticket to Rio de Janeiro for this summer’s Olympic Tournament.

Restrepo, looking to qualify Colombia for its first Olympic Games since 1992, has called upon mostly domestic talent, dotted with a few foreign-based standouts. Here’s the roster.

GOALKEEPERS: Cristian Bonilla (Atletico Nacional), Alvaro Montero (San Lorenzo), Luis Hurtado (Deportivo Cali )

DEFENDERS: Cristian Borja (Santa Fe), Yerry Mina (Santa Fe), Jaine Barreiro (Santa Fe), Luis Orejuela (Deportivo Cali), Deiver Machado (Millonarios), Felipe Aguilar (Atletico Nacional), Davinson Sanchez (Atletico Nacional), Helibelton Palacios (Deportivo Cali), Jherson Vergara (Livorno)

MIDFIELDERS: Juan Pablo Nieto (Atletico Nacional), Juan Fernando Quintero (Rennes), Yony Gonzalez (Junior), Raul Loaiza (Patriotas), Jose Leudo (Deportivo Pasto), Wilmar Barrios (Deportes Tolima), Andres Felipe Roa (Deportivo Cali), Jarlan Barrera (Junior)

FORWARDS: Roger Martinez (Racing Club), Cristian Dajome (Deportes Tolima), Harold Preciado (Deportivo Cali), Rafael Santos Borre (Deportivo Cal), Andres Renteria (Santos Laguna)


Colombia’s qualifying process began in earnest in September 2014 with the first stage of the CONMEBOL Youth Championships. Drawn into Group B, wins against Chile and Venezuela propelled los Cafeteros into the final stages. Needing a second place finish to qualify, by virtue of Brazil’s automatic inclusion as the host nation, Colombia went unbeaten in five matches, including a playoff-clinching 3-0 win against the Brazilians on the final day of the round-robin tournament.

Utilizing a variety of lineups and a healthy mix of players, the Colombians have been extremely successful during this Olympic cycle. According to available match reports, the squad—at times, comprised of U-20, U-22 or U-23 players—has posted a 7-2-6 record (and a +7 goal differential), with its only defeats coming very early in the qualification process.

Despite securing the qualification playoff, only five players from the Youth Championship squad will return for the two legs against the United States—leaving a very faint line of continuity. Likewise, only four players have graduated from the summer’s under-20 World Cup, where Restrepo’s squad was ousted by the Americans in the Round of 16.

After a brief layover, Restrepo convened his first official U-23 camp in November. Taking part in the CFA International Youth Football Tournament in China, the Colombians emerged victorious after going unbeaten against Morocco, South Korea and the host nation.

After the winter break, the squad continued its streak of positive results into 2016, posting consecutive draws in two warm-up friendlies against Honduras last month.


Colombia is no doubt a tough opponent—the match against the U.S. this summer demonstrated that fact—but the team is not without some frailty. Against South Korea in November, the squad (featuring 12 of 25 players called) conceded two first-half goals before roaring back to grab a draw. The South Koreans were able to take advantage of some defensive naivety, scoring both goals on nearly identical short corner routines by freezing the Colombian defenders with simple cutbacks after over-committing to runners in the box.

Restrepo’s squad found its way back in the game by applying a high line of confrontation and heavy pressure on the technical, but slight, Korean midfield. Composed on the ball, it was only a matter of time before Colombia's superior speed and technique overwhelmed its opponents, which dropped perilously deep in an attempt to preserve a result.

From an American perspective, this small sample offers some disconcerting trends for the U.S. Olympic hopefuls. Navigating high pressure and retaining possession have not been skills that this age group has displayed in recent matches. Going back to the U-20 World Cup, the warning signs were there. Head coach Andi Herzog must also be acutely aware of the dangers of dropping deep and ball watching—a tendency that will be easily exploited by the Colombians.

Colombia does not typically score from direct play and instead thrives on its speedy wingers, wide service, and technical passing around the penalty area to develop most of its chances. Up front, Roger Martinez—one the squad’s few non-domestic league players—is clearly a danger man for Restrepo. After two years of loans in Argentina, Martinez returned to Racing Club this season, forcing his way into the Starting XI after some big performances during Copa Libertadores. Since earning a starting spot, Martinez has netted in three of his last five appearances. Watch those near-post runs…

His potential strike partners are no less deadly. Coming off a career year—11 goals, 26 appearances for domestic side Deportivo Cali—Rafael Borre is one of the few players who have remained with the Colombian program since the CONMEBOL Youth Championship in 2014. With an eye on a rumored move to Atletico Madrid, the 20-year-old winger has scoring four goals in the first five matches of the Colombian season. Highlight videos with pulsing techno music confirms: He’s pretty good.

Restrepo has also included a senior team ringer in the form of midfielder Juan Fernando Quintero. A veteran of the 2014 World Cup, Quintero has the distinction of being the most experienced international from either squad with 13 caps for the senior national team. Typically deployed in an advanced midfield role, Quintero acts as a central playmaker for Rennes in Ligue 1—where he has nine starts this season.

Individually, Restrepo’s squad is in great form. Nearly everyone is contributing for their club teams. But how are their Americans contemporaries faring?


Here's Andreas Herzog's 23-man roster.

GOALKEEPERS: Cody Cropper (Milton Keynes Dons), Ethan Horvath (Molde KJ), Tyler Miller (Seattle Sounders FC)

DEFENDERS: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Matt Miazga (Chelsea FC), Eric Miller (Colorado Rapids), Tim Parker (Vancouver Whitecaps FC), Desevio Payne (FC Groningen), Shane O’Neill (Cambridge United), Brandon Vincent (Chicago Fire), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas)

MIDFIELDERS: Fatai Alashe (San Jose Earthquakes), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Luis Gil (Queretaro), Julian Green (Bayern Munich), Emerson Hyndman (Fulham FC), Jerome Kiesewetter (VfB Stuttgart), Matt Polster (Chicago Fire), Dillon Serna (Colorado Rapids), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew SC)

FORWARDS: Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders FC), Mario Rodriguez (Borussia Monchengladbach), Khiry Shelton (New York City FC)

What to expect? Your guess is as good as mine.

First off, it wouldn’t be a U.S. roster without untimely injuries. Most notably, Herzog will be without the services of prospective starting centerback Cameron Carter-Vickers, who suffered a season-ending back injury playing for the Tottenham reserves. Glasgow Rangers midfielder Gedion Zelalem and Utrecht striker Rubio Rubin will remain with their respective clubs as they recover from lingering ailments, while Freiburg goalkeeper Zachary Steffen was another late scratch—replaced by Seattle Sounders back-up Tyler Miller.

At first blush, Herzog’s standard defensive selections have been significantly altered, with five of the eight players chosen having never played under the U-23 banner. Partially a result of U.S. Soccer’s historical difficulty with securing player releases, it is equally a reflection on the lack of viability of previous Herzog selections.

“Jack of all trades, master of none” is the phrase that pays. In 17 matches under Herzog’s watch, 11 different players have seen time as an outside back. Among that group, only Eric Miller, along with Matt Polster and Dillon Serna—both listed as midfielders—will accompany the team to Barranquilla this week. Brand new January call-ups Brandon Vincent, Kellyn Acosta, and Tim Parker, along with under-20 World Cup veteran Desevio Payne, fill out the roster, walking straight into Herzog’s team by virtue of their own competence—with the latter three seemingly primed to take key roles.

The positional versatility of Herzog's squad is intriguing and, potentially, a benefit—but without any semblance of continuity the hope is that Herzog can integrate his new pieces into a cogent playing style before Friday night.

While the backline is still a scattershot jumble of positional uncertainty, Herzog appears to have broken from tradition and—gasp!—committed to his best-performing players in attack. Tijuana midfielder Paul Arriola receives his first call-up for the under-23 squad, a long overdue inclusion that should help the United States bring some much-needed dynamism to the wide positions. Arriola is decidedly in midseason form (check out 1:21 of the below video for a wicked sombrero-to-upper-90 finish), earning starts for the Xolos in Liga MX play.

Borussia Monchengladbach reservist Mario Rodriguez also makes his return to this age group after putting together a career year for the Regionalliga West league leaders—tallying six goals and a team-leading five assists in 21 appearances this season.

The man you love to hate, Julian Green, is also back in the fold. Remember that one time he scored at the World Cup? Despite the inextricable baggage connected to the whole “Donovan incident,” it turns out he’s still a pretty good player. Leading all U.S. players with 10 tallies this season, Green continues to plug away for the Bayern reserves as he looks to earn another shot with the German giants.

It’s not all good news, however. In contrast to the Colombians, there are quite a few Americans struggling with form and playing time for their clubs. Emerson Hyndman is “being protected” at Fulham. Shane O’Neill jumped from the Colorado Rapids to English fourth division side Cambridge United (honestly, probably a lateral move) and just received his first competitive minutes this season. His former teammate, Serna, has played only seven minutes for a dreadful Colorado Rapids team. Presumed back-up goal keeper Cody Cropper has just six appearances for MK Dons since August, while Jerome Kiesewetter appears to be on the outs with Stuttgart—last featuring in early February.

The lack of “big game” experience is also disconcerting. Of the 11 foreign-based players, only Arriola, Payne, Luis Gil, and Ethan Horvath are playing consistently at a first-team level. Outside of Horvath—who enjoyed a brief run in the Europa League—FC Dallas pair Kellyn Acosta and Walker Zimmerman arguably have the most high-pressure experience as a result of FC Dallas’ deep MLS playoff run last season.

On the Colombian side, six players have started at least one match during the on-going Copa Libertadores tournament. Big difference. 


Horvath; Acosta, Miazga, Parker, Payne; Polster, Trapp, Gil; Arriola, Morris, Kiesewetter


In general, I have been pessimistic on U.S. Olympic prospects. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism—a remnant of the heart-stomping and totally preventable 2012 qualifying exit. However, recent defeats against Honduras and Brazil revealed a team that looks scared to lose. 

Above all else, Herzog must avoid an early deficit and dropping deep on the defensive end. Los Cafeteros thrive on having space to run out wide and the time for their midfielders to pick a pass to its slick corps of attacking talent. The South Americans have shown to be disrupted by midfied pressure and cannot be allowed to gain confidence on the ball. The North Americans better put on their running shoes if they hope to stop the spirit-draining cacophony of “Ole!” chants as the ball is cycled through midfield ad infinitum.

It's likely Herzog will be playing for a draw, meaning the Americans must be tactically disciplined and defensively stout if they hope to emerge from Barranquilla with designs of advancing to Brazil. I’m just not sure it’s in the cards. I see Colombia taking the first leg, 3-1.

ASN Contributing Editor Josh Deaver is a former academic turned soccer obsessive. Follow him on Twitter. 

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