There’s one spot left in soccer tournament for the 2016 Summer Olympics, and either the United States or Colombia will claim it.
The first match of the home-and-away tie is tonight in Barranquilla, and as far as U-23 matches go, the stakes could hardly be any higher.
How to watch: 5 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1/Univision
Man in the middle: Turkish referee Cüneyt Çakır, who was the man in charge of last year’s Champions League final
Return tie: The teams will meet again on Tuesday, March 29, in Frisco, Texas at 9:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
How they got here: Colombia finished second to Argentina in the 2015 South American Youth Football Championship. Brazil, which finished fourth in the final group stage, also earned an Olympic berth as the host nation.
The United States lost to Honduras, 2-0, in the semifinal of the 2015 CONCACAF Men’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament and finished third. Mexico won the tournament, beating Honduras 2-0 in the final. Both qualified for the Olympics.
History lesson: The nations have never met in U-23 competition. The United States did beat Colombia, 1-0, in the 2015 U-20 World Cup Round of 16, but only four Colombians from that team are on this roster.
Form guide: Colombia and Honduras played to a pair of draws last month in Florida
They said it, part one: “First of all we have to go to Colombia to get a great result for our second game at home, and hopefully with the home support in the second game we will qualify. The perfect result is we win these two games against Colombia and then we go to Rio. We have now two or three days to train our group, and then we will do our best to have a really good game and especially a really good result in Colombia.” — U.S. U-23 coach Andi Herzog
They said it, part two: “They’re a team characterized by big, strong players. … We need to return to the United States with a good result.” — Colombia U-23 coach Carlos Restrepo
Players to watch: Here are a few players to keep an eye on today.
Jordan Morris, F, U.S. — With only three forwards on the roster, Herzog will be counting on a big day from the Seattle Sounders striker.
Rafael Borre, F, Colombia — He’s a native of Barraquilla that plays for Deportivo Cali, on loan from Atletico Madrid. He scored two goals in the U-20 World Cup, and will need to marked closely by a makeshift U.S. back line.
Matt Miazga, CB, U.S. — Speaking of the back four, the Chelsea man will need to be on his game today. The loss of Tottenham’s Cameron Carter-Vickers to injury is a blow, so Vancouver Whitecaps center half Tim Parker could start next to Miazga for what should be a busy defensive day.
Juan Fernando Quintero, MID, Colombia — Quintero, who plays with Rennes in France on loan from FC Porto, has 13 senior caps and a World Cup goal on his resume. He’s an experienced midfield player and a key part of the senior team setup. That sort of gives us a clue of just how badly Colombia wants to qualify for the Olympics.
Analysis: The United States can’t win the tie today, but if it gets shelled tonight, it will most certainly lose any chance of showing up as anything other than tourists in Rio this summer. Herzog will park the bus, benches, training cones, water coolers and anything else he can find in front of his own penalty area and hope that his team can score a goal on the counter.
It’s not a sexy strategy by any stretch, but it’s the correct one.
Prediction: I don’t see the Americans keeping a clean sheet, but thankfully, I don’t think Colombia will manage it either. Colombia should win, let’s say 2-1 and the United States can at least bring an away goal, leaving everything to play for Tuesday night in Texas.