Losing does not generally generate good feelings. Losing to your nemesis because of a self-inflicted wound even less so.
Just ask the U.S. Under-23 Men’s National Team.
The Concacaf Olympic Qualifying group stage ended on a sour note for the U-23 USMNT on Wednesday night, as the Americans suffered a 1-0 defeat to arch-rival Mexico at Estadio Jalisco in Guadalajara. Jason Kreis’ side will live to fight another day in the competition, but suffering a first loss in the tournament and not capitalizing on a chance to win Group A stung all the same.
Especially since it was a needless individual error that help provide the difference. Center forward Sebastian Soto hit an ill-advised back pass from a very deep position in the 45th minute, and Uriel Antuna pounced on it to author the winner.
“It is a game of small details and getting all those right, and against the best teams you are going to get punished if you make even the smallest of mistakes,” said U-23 USMNT centerback Mauricio Pineda. “Today we were punished for that and I think we have to start punishing teams on the other side of the field as well, but we will keep improving defensively and offensively.”
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While it is tactically unclear why Soto dropped so far back to the point that he was behind the entire midfield and playing a ball to the centerbacks, a lot of the focus in the immediate aftermath of the match was on the Americans’ continued struggles in the final third.
The USMNT had plenty of goal approximations against Mexico from the run of play, but was once again not overly threatening once it got into the last part of the field. The Americans finished Wednesday’s match with only one shot on target, and that came via a tame header from midfielder Johnny Cardoso in the second half.
“It is a difficult one for me. We have who we have,” said Kreis when asked about the lack of creativity in his team. “We have players that I think are very useful for us in the midfield. I think a little bit when you are playing an opponent like Mexico, you are not going to get a lot of time and space on the ball to make those decisions.
“I think ultimately from my point of view against that opponent, we still created enough, we still got to the final third enough times. For me, it is not about creativity of a central midfielder, to me it is just about finishing attacks and what you are doing in the final third.”
Kreis added that he was surprised to see Mexico field a near full-strength lineup. The American coach opted to go with a more reserve group, with the idea being that he wanted to keep more of his first-choice options rested for the decisive semifinal game that will be played on Sunday vs. one of Canada or Honduras.
Still, the USMNT’s overall performance, both in the match and in the entire group phase, left something to be desired.
“I think my takeaways are the same as they were before this game,” said Kreis. “I think tonight we saw really bright spots, I think we also saw spots where you are like, ‘Wow, these guys are still rusty,’ and (they are) still making mistakes you do not normally see them make in passes and movements and those sorts of things.
“It is what it is, and ultimately I think that we are in a good enough place where we will get the result in the very next game. It is a difficult result for us to take tonight, but the goal is still right in front of us as it was before the game so we are focused on that immediately.”
In the end, that looming weekend fixture is what really matters since it is what will determine if the Americans can get back to the Olympics for the first time since 2008.
The loss to Mexico may have hurt, especially because of how it came about, but the truly important game remains on the horizon.
“It is all still there for us,” said Kreis. “Nothing has changed.”