Olimpia has won the past four Honduran championships but to win a fifth it will have to advance past a play-in round and face stiffer competition than in previous seasons.
It’s not that the club is much worse than it was in previous campaigns, though it has been hit with players moving to larger leagues and injuries. It’s that the competition is better. The tougher field was on display the final matchday of the season. Roger Rojas scored in the first half of Olimpia’s match with Real Sociedad to put the Lions in pole position. It seemed they would top the table, or at least secure direct passage to the semifinals with a top-two finish.
But Cesar Zelaya equalized in the 88th minute and the draw lifted Real Sociedad to first place. Real España, Olimpia’s other rival for a bye into the semifinals turned over a 2-0 result thanks to goals in the 85th and 86th minute against Vida, the second of which was scored by former Seattle Sounders midfielder Mario Martinez, for a 2-2 draw that clinched second.
Real España has been revitalized this season under colorful Costa Rican manager Hernan Medford while Real Sociedad has been able to solidify the turnaround it showed in the spring’s Clausura after finishing at the foot of the table in last year’s Apertura.
Now Olimpia finds itself down 1-0 heading into the second leg of a playoff with Parrillas One, a newly promoted club named after an auto shop that has been playing professional football for little more than a decade. Heading to tiny Estadio Leon Gomez, capacity 3,000, Wednesday afternoon Olimpia manager Oscar Salgado told reporters his team has entered with respect for the “growing” but smaller side. It wasn't enough, and now Olimpia must get a win at home to advance to the semifinals.
It’ll have to do it without defender Brayan Beckeles and goalkeeper Noel Valladares who are with the Honduran national team to face Brazil and Ecuador in friendlies in the U.S. Donis Escober should have no trouble taking over between the pipes, but Beckeles’ absence hits the club where it’s already thin. Fabio de Souza was sent off in the final contest of the year and missed the first leg, JC Garcia moved to Wigan in the offseason, and Johnny Palacios has missed the entire tournament after suffering an Achilles injury in the opening match of the Gold Cup.
Replacing players isn’t anything new for the capital club. All four Palacios brothers who played professionally started their careers in Tegucigalpa, as did Oscar Boniek Garcia of the Houston Dynamo. Premier League defender Maynor Figueroa had a stint with the club before going to Wigan.
In fact, striker Rojas attempted to join Figueroa in England late in the summer window, leaving Olimpia to go to West Ham but returning after he failed a fitness test, news of which was bizarrely broken on Twitter by the teenage son of the London club’s owner.
Each time a player has gone on, Olimpia has culled a young replacement or signed a player from one of the country’s smaller clubs. Like 20-year-old Anthony Lozano, who represents both paths. He leads the team with 10 goals this campaign and debuted with the club at age 15 after playing youth football with Platense. But acquiring another player is not an option on such short notice, so Escober and the rest of the defensive ranks will have to do what they can to steer the club into the semifinal round and keep Parrillas One’s Luis Lobo, who is also on 10 goals, off the board. If the unit can show the same form it did in a 0-0 CONCACAF Champions League draw with Sporting Kansas City in October, a semifinal date with an improved Real side awaits. In the first leg, the team coped with Lobo, but fell victim to defender Selvin Castellanos' 81st-minute header.
With defensive deficiencies and better competition, a fifth consecutive title could elude Olimpia, and it will if it can't find a victory Sunday afternoon.