Given how the last two Olympic qualifying cycles have gone, the U.S. U-23 men’s national team will take it.
A laborious 1-0 win over Costa Rica at Estadio Jalisco in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Thursday won’t win many style points and won’t have many fawning over the product, but the three points are all that matters, and those belong to Jason Kreis’s charges as they try to punch the USA’s ticket to this summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
The U.S. men infamously haven’t qualified for an Olympics since 2008. In order to snap that stretch of futility on the youth level, they must finish first or second in their four-team group in the eight-team Concacaf competition and then win their semifinal matchup against a top-two finisher from the other group in the brief knockout phase.
The first step in that quest was picking up points from the start, and Jesus Ferreira’s 35th-minute goal, coupled with some stout goalkeeping from David Ochoa, ensured that was the case. The U.S. will be expected to beat the Dominican Republic on Sunday—though nothing, as U.S. Soccer can attest, can be taken for granted on the international stage—and if it can indeed take six points into the group finale with Mexico, another one of the competition’s favorites and its host, then it would be in prime position to secure a place in those all-important semifinals.
It looked like the U.S. would coast after Ferreira nearly scored in the second minute after forcing a turnover in the Costa Rica third, only to hit the post on his ensuing shot.
That early chance didn’t do much to settle the U.S. though, with Ochoa, the Real Salt Lake goalkeeper, forced into three early saves in the opening 20 minutes to cover for a bit of a mess in the back.
Ferreira relieved some tension in the 35th minute with his opener. Left back Sam Vines sent in a dangerous cross from the wing, and it wasn’t cleared properly, falling into space for Ferreira to run onto it and smash home the goal.
Ferreira and Vines had combined for a goal for the senior national team in January, with the Colorado Rapids defender setting up the FC Dallas forward the USA’s second in a 7-0 romp over Trinidad & Tobago.
From there, it was more of the same, with the U.S. unable to put Costa Rica away or seize control of the game and Ochoa looked upon to be the safety net in the back. He made nine saves in all.
The U.S.’s day started on a rough note, with Ulysses Llanez replaced on Kreis’s 20-man roster by FC Dallas midfielder Tanner Tessmann due to an ankle injury. Ferreira wound up exiting with an injury of his own in the 67th minute. Depending on the severity of it, his availability is now in question going forward. The USA’s outlook, however, is considerably brighter in a competition where the margin for error is quite slim and fortunes can turn on every result.