The USA U-23 squad sealed top spot in Group A of CONCACAF Olympic qualifying with a 4-0 win over a lackluster Panama side on October 6. But winning the group does not get the US to the 2016 men's soccer tournament in Rio. To book a place in the competition in Brazil, the young Americans must win in the semifinal round of CONCACAF qualifying. And to win in the semifinals, they will have to beat one of the two teams dueling for top spot in Group B: Mexico or Honduras.
Both El Tri and Los Catrachos are through to the knockout rounds of Olympic qualifying, but this game will decide who wins the group - and plays Canada in the semifinals - and who finishes second. The Group B runner-up will be the USA U-23s' most important opponent of this tournament: the one standing between them and a shot at an Olympic medal in 2016.
Most likely, that opponent will be Honduras. Mexico is the favorite to win Group B, and the pre-tournament expectation was that the USA and El Tri would face off in the final of this competition for regional bragging rights heading into the Olympics.
There is considerable talent in the Mexico squad, including Erick Gutierrez and Hirving Lozano - the standout pair from El Tri's CONCACAF 2015 U-20 Championship title-winning side, and also regulars in the 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League for Pachuca. MLS-watchers will also be familiar with Erick "Cubo" Torres, who is hoping this tournament will help him shake off the poor form that has dogged him since joining Houston Dynamo. And a few may remember Carlos Salcedo, the Real Salt Lake homegrown prospect who transferred to Chivas de Guadalajara in January, and now has four caps for Mexico's senior men's national team.
Still, Honduras is not without quality of its own. Perhaps the best known players in the squad are Anthony Lozano, Bryan Rochez, and Alberth Elis. The three attacking players are among the most promising prospects in CONCACAF. 19-year-old Elis is the youngest, but already has full international caps (two), and senior professional experience for his club, Olimpia, in both the Honduran top flight and CCL. Rochez has started to draw attention to himself at Orlando City SC in MLS. Lozano moved to CD Tenerife this season, and has scored four goals in six appearances in Spain's Segunda Division; he has also scored in both of Los Catrachos' games in this tournament.
Either team should present a greater challenge to Matt Miazga and the USA U-23s than was found in Group A. And this match is the chance to see which one will be lining up opposite the Americans on October 10.
If there is a loser, that is the side that will play the USA in the semifinals. A draw favors Mexico, and puts Honduras up against Andi Herzog's U-23s on Sunday.