A big Fourth of July weekend of soccer begins on Friday: USA vs. Honduras in the Concacaf Under-20 Men's Championship semifinals.
At stake: a berth in the 2024 Olympic men's soccer tournament.
Honduras beat the USA to qualify for the Olympics in 2015 and 2021. The first time 2-0 at Real Salt Lake's Rio Tinto Stadium in 2015. The second time, 2-1, 15 months ago in Guadalajara, Mexico.
This time, Honduras has an added advantage, hosting the semifinal encounter at San Pedro Sula's Estadio Morazan, where a sellout crowd is expected.
The USA and Honduras both clinched berths in the 2023 Under-20 World Cup in Indonesia with quarterfinal wins on Tuesday.
The USA beat Costa Rica, 2-0, on a pair of Paxten Aaronson goals, while Honduras rallied to beat Panama, 2-1, thanks to two goals by Marco Aceituno, the first on a rebound after Jeyson Contreras' penalty kick was saved and the second on his own spot kick.
A missed penalty kick loomed large in the USA-Costa Rica match.
The USA took an early lead when Aaronson scored on a pass from Philadelphia Union teammate Quinn Sullivan, but it was stymied by Costa Rica's excellent keeper, Bayron Mora, throughout the rest of the first half. Aaronson added a second goal in the 49th minute, but then the U.S. attack went silent.
Los Ticos were the better team in the second half and looked set to get back in the game five minutes after Aaronson's second goal when U.S. left back Mauricio Cuevas was whistled for a handball in the penalty area. But Brandon Aguilera, one of the stars of Costa Rica's 2-0 win over the USA on the final day of World Cup 2022 qualifying, skied his penalty kick over the goal.
The USA, which struggled all game with passes played back to keeper Christopher Brady, was pinned in its own half much of the second half and was lucky to escape another threat in the 69th minute when Doryan Rodriguez's header of Aguilera's free kick bounced off the post.
"When we went up 2-0." said U.S. coach Mikey Varas, "we probably conceded a little bit more space than we wanted to. There was a pause at a certain stage where we told the boys to calm down, continue to play. Keeping the ball for longer spells of possession was going to be in our benefit but without playing backwards too many passes in a row because they were throwing numbers at us."
Alejandro Alvarado was excellent in midfield for the USA, springing the attack on the first goal and dummying Caden Clark's ball back across the area on the second goal, and he was the only one of the USA's front six to finish the game despite being constantly fouled by the Ticos.
"Ale had a fantastic game," said Aaronson. "He did so much for the team, supporting the defense, but also getting into good positions to help us offensively. Like on that second goal, he made a great little dummy to me and that allowed me to score."
The quarterfinal was marred by a post-game brawl at midfield in which at least three American players were knocked to the ground and forward Cade Cowell had his hair pulled.
"We're happy with the qualification," said Varas. "At the same point, we're disappointed with what happened at the end of the match. Obviously, player safety is always a primary concern of ours. We're hoping that Concacaf investigates thoroughly and provides us with some clarity because this type of situation cannot happen."
• Goals (with video):
5: Aaronson (1-0)
49: Aaronson (2-0)
June 28 in San Pedro Sula
USA 2 Costa Rica 0. Goals: Aaronson 5, 49.
USA -- Brady; Halliday, Neal, Craig, Cuevas; Pukstas (Edelman, 56), Alvarado, Luna (McGlynn, 63); Sullivan (Cowell, 63), Aaronson (Wolff, 78), Clark (Tsakiris, 78).
Costa Rica -- Mora; Sequeira (Telleria, 79), Van Der Putten, Pena, Soto, Aguilera (Salmeron 72), Alcocer, Rios (Johnson, 62), Arias, Aleman (Perez, 46), Escoe (Rodriguez, 46).