'Brotherhood' leading to a 'total team effort': How the USMYNT is Olympic bound again after 16 years
When the U.S. U-20 men's youth national team entered the Concacaf U-20 Championship, it was impossible to run from the negative history looming overhead. Since the men's team's last Olympic appearance in 2008, three qualifying cycles had come and gone, with the U.S. coming up just short each time.
But the stakes went beyond history that began when these players were no older than five. A new format meant one competition served as the confederation championship and qualification mechanism to both the 2024 Paris Olympics and 2023 U-20 World Cup in Indonesia.
The tournament's group stage round preceded a knockout format that gave World Cup spots to the quarterfinal winners, Olympic spots to the semifinal winners, and the region championship to the final winner. The U.S. managed to survive the pressure, format and chaos around them, booking a trip Paris last night to go with Tuesday's ticket to Indonesia. Not to be overlooked, the team also has a shot at the confederation championship tomorrow night.
If anyone doubted how hard those qualifications were even without some negative history, the knockout round quickly provided plenty of evidence to the contrary. Guatemala upset both Canada and Mexico on penalties, denying those countries the World Cup and Olympics. The Dominican Republic, forced to earn a tournament spot through an extra qualifying round for lower-seeded teams, took an unlikely path through El Salvador, Jamaica and Guatemala to the tournament final. The run gave the team two firsts, as the Dominican Republic had never sent its men's team to the Olympics or a World Cup at any age level.
So how did this U.S. group not only get through the madness of one of the hardest-ever Concacaf tournaments, but also do what no other American men could do since 2008? "Brotherhood."
"I want to make it very clear that this was a huge team effort, (including the) support staff (and) technical staff. I said from day one I'm not good enough to do it by myself, and everybody stepped up," head coach Mikey Vargas said. "And the most important actors in this whole story were the players. The way they stepped up and confronted this moment, in front of these fans, I can't be more proud of them."
The same team effort on display last night ensured the U.S. even made it through the first two knockout rounds to have a shot at Olympic qualification. A group stage draw with Canada proved a valuable learning experience that revitalized the squad, helping it improve so as not to be tripped up before reaching its goals.
Vargas mentioned how the difference between a win and a tie in that Canada game was being one percent better in each box, a mindset the team carried with them moving forward. "That helped set the tone for the rest of the tournament," Vargas said. "Without that learning moment I don't know if we play as well as we did."
With only two Olympic spots up for grabs, an already challenging knockout round was made more difficult when the U.S. landed host nation Honduras in the semifinal, the country that knocked out the Americans in the previous two Olympic qualifying cycles. Nearly 20,000 Honduran fans sold out Francisco Morazan Stadium for the match, bringing passion and a bit of danger as bottles and lasers were directed at U.S. players.
But with history within their grasp, the Americans stuck together to ensure the raucous crowd was not going to be the reason they were denied.
"I loved it, honestly. Those are the moments you live for," Philadelphia Union midfielder Jack McGlynn said. "We knew it would be a hostile environment, and we wanted to take the crowd out of it from the start and just jump on them."
The Americans did just that three minutes in, with two more Union players combining for the opening goal when Paxten Aaronson got on the end of a Brandan Craig free kick.
That was only the beginning of a dominating first half, as Alejandro Alvarado Jr. tapped home a nine pass sequence in the 22nd minute before Quinn Sullivan registered his tournament-leading sixth goal in the 43rd minute.
The 3-0 halftime lead stood, becoming the final tally despite Honduras' frenetic second half effort. Motivated by their home crowd, the Hondurans became increasingly desperate and dangerous in front of goal. While the energy from both the players and fans turned ugly at times, the U.S. players kept their cool, proving there was something different about this group.
"It's just the bond we have together off the field, we're all just best friends. It just comes from the culture Mikey (Vargas) brings off the field," McGlynn said about what made the team special.
"Having that trust off the field really shows on the field, and I think that's something very good that we've done this camp," Real Salt Lake midfielder Diego Luna added.
As with any national team, developing that connection can be difficult, as players and coaches have limited time together. McGlynn said when the team arrived at camp, the coaching staff set up various games and team bonding activities to help jump start the process, which went a long way toward developing chemistry.
Going forward, the team still has a final to win before everyone heads back to their respective clubs. Vargas and the players were quick to point out that the match and the Dominican Republic should be treated seriously, as the country's results thus far are no fluke despite its lower seed.
"We don't look at the DR as a Cinderella. As soon as we saw them play their first game we realized they may have been mis-seeded in the pre-qualification process.," Vargas explained. "They're a much better team than their seed."
"Last night was an amazing feeling. We celebrated well, we had the happiness, the pleasure, of that win and we wake up and it's a new day. We flip the page and now all our eyes are focused on tomorrow. We don't stay happy for so long because then you forget about what's happening and what we have next to do, but we're happy and we're moving on to the next thing," Luna said.
Once tomorrow's 8:00 p.m. ET final on FS1 is finished, these players will be remembered as one of the greatest American youth teams in recent memory. Other squads had plenty of talent, but the 2022 team is the one that finally brought the country back to the Olympics. If these players can succeed under the pressure and circumstances they just faced in Honduras, there is no reason to believe they won't continue to push U.S. soccer forward throughout the years to come.