Colombia and the United States will kick off the CONCACAF-CONMEBOL play-off home and away series on Friday at Estadio Metropolitano Roberto Meléndez in Barranquilla, Colombia.
How they got here
These two nations will be competing for the right to earn the final ticket to the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio. Only 16 countries qualify to the Olympics, and 15 nations have already punched their ticket. The countries are: Brazil (Host), Argentina, Denmark, Germany, Portugal, Sweden, Fiji, Honduras, Mexico, Algeria, Nigeria, South Africa, Iraq, Japan and South Korea.
There will be two matches in this series. The first game will be at Colombia on Friday while the last leg of the series will be at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas on Tuesday. Of course winning both games will automatically send one of them to the Olympics. However, if both countries win a game then the winner of the series will be decided by the team with the better goal aggregate. So neither side can afford to lose a game by multiple goals.
The United States finished the 2015 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championship in third place. For them to automatically qualify for the Olympics for the first time since 2008 they had to make the final. However, the hosts were beaten by Honduras 2-0 in the semifinals at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. With that defeat the Yanks were forced to win the third place match against Canada to place themselves in the playoff series against Colombia. The U.S. was able to defeat their rivals to the north 2-0 at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Los Cafeteros finished second in the final stage of the 2015 South American Youth Football Championship that was held in Uruguay. Colombia was drawn in group B with the host nation, Brazil, Venezuela and Chile. They had to finish in the top three to qualify in the final round of the Olympic and the 2015 Under-20 World Cup in New Zealand Qualifiers.
They managed to just get by and secure third place with six points out of four games. The final stage had six countries competing for the number one spot to automatically have a place secured in Rio. The other five nations were: Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Peru and Paraguay. However, they fell just short to Argentina who finished the final round in first place with 13 points in five matches. Los Cafeteros were able to hold on to second place with nine points.
The United States road to an upset
Now the two nations will clash on Friday and for the Americans it is crucial that they slow down the pace as much as possible. The Colombians at home will start the match on fire. The South American nation will be flying down the pitch with Andrés Renteria, Roger Martínez and Juan Quintero leading the attack. Colombia is well aware that a solid game one at home can nearly secure their spot in the Olympics for the first since 1992.
The United States must find a way to calm them down. The defense will have their hands full so the midfield will need to make sure that they can win the battle of possession. Players like Will Trapp, Emerson Hyndman and Luis Gil will need to control the ball and attempt to find pockets of space. The minute these gaps in the defense are found the midfield will have to unleash speedsters Jerome Kiesewetter, Julian Green and Jordan Morris.
The three of them must keep the Cafeteros defense honest. Their pace and technical abilities will have to create havoc for the defense and they must test the goalkeeper every chance they get. The dream scenario for the USA is to score and take out the crowd and put all the pressure on the Colombians to respond fast.
An extra bit of motivation for Morris is that he is on the cusp of rewriting history for the Yanks. The Seattle Sounders FC forward has scored seven goals for the U23's in 11 matches. He is only three goals away from tying Steve Snow's record of 10 goals for the United States on this level. Snow has held the record of most goals for the U23's since 1992.
Colombia's path to victory
The Cafeteros need to feed of the energy of the fans and pressure the American defense. The United States in the qualifiers showed that their back line can be exposed when facing players who have the ability to create with the ball. That was the game plan for Los Catrachos when they defeated the U.S. 2-0 in the semifinals.
The Colombians, in the qualification matches, showed that they are an explosive side. They scored 12 goals with seven of them coming in the final round. This side does not have a problem scoring in high pressure moments, and that is exactly what Colombia has to do in game one.
The longer this match goes scoreless the more confident the United States will get. The South Americans cannot afford to leave the first leg with a defeat or a scoreless draw. An early goal for the home team will ignite the fans and most likely lead to the Americans demise.
Prediction: Colombia 2-0 USA