To understand how much respect the Honduran Under-20 national team showed for the United States in their Monday Concacaf Championship clash, consider that the Catrachos entered the match undefeated, having scored a whopping 31 goals in the Concacaf tournament. Despite that impressive record, Honduras still decided the safest path to a place in the 2019 Under-20 World Cup was trotting out a defensive-minded lineup and packing numbers behind the ball rather than running the risk of being blown out by the Americans.
It was a pragmatic, and logical approach, if you ignore the fact Honduras could have booked its own place in the Concacaf final with a win. Perhaps the Hondurans saw enough from the U.S. team's 4-0 thrashing of Costa Rica on Friday to show them that the safer approach would be to respect the Americans and their dangerous attack.
The result was a lackluster 1-0 U.S. win that left the hundreds of Honduran fans in attendance at IMG Academy frustrated at watching their countrymen be content to settle for a 1-0 loss rather than attack and try to knock off the Americans.
The U.S. adapted to Honduras' defensive approach, and while it was a frustrating night, Ayo Akinola's 51st-minute goal gave the Americans all they needed to secure their place in Wednesday's Concacaf final, and a date against Mexico.
"I think (Honduras) recognized the type of firepower we have on our team," U.S. coach Tab Ramos told Goal. "We have a lot of different players that can score and I think they did the smart thing. They came to secure their spot in the World Cup, and I felt for us it was the same. The team played really smart and we did what we needed to do."
— Ives Galarcep (@SoccerByIves) November 20, 2018
At one point on Monday, the USA-Mexico final neutrals had been hoping to see was in danger of never materializing. Panama jumped all over Mexico and held a 2-0 halftime lead on El Tri, just as the U.S. team was arriving at the venue for its match. The Americans were preparing for their own match, but couldn't help but notice that Mexico was trailing, leaving many of them secretly hoping for a Mexico comeback to set up the dream final.
"I felt like they were going to come back." Akinola told Goal. "They have so many good players, especially their number 10, Diego Lainez, so I thought for sure they'd come back."
Mexico pulled off the comeback with a pair of second-half goals to earn a draw that allowed El Tri to reach the final ahead of Panama on Fair Play criteria (the teams were tied on points and results). A Panama yellow card for dissent ultimately cost the Canaleros a place in the final, and let the U.S. Under-20s know before their own match that Mexico was waiting for them in the final.
"When you hear Mexico's in the final it's a bit of a push internally," U.S. defender Mark McKenzie told Goal. "Of course we want to go out and get the win, but then you have even more incentive to go out and get the trophy."
The Americans faced a Honduran side that sat two of its best attacking players and deployed a defensive-minded setup that gave the United States little room to operate in the final third. After a goal-less first half, Akinola stepped up to score his seventh goal of the tournament when he lashed a shot from the right wing, just inside the far post and by the outstretched arms of the Honduran goalkeeper.
— U.S. Soccer YNT (@ussoccer_ynt) November 20, 2018
"He's done great," Ramos said of Akinola, the former U.S. Under-17 striker and Toronto FC academy product. "I actually had a conversation with him earlier today about exactly that, because I think he's gotten better as the tournament has gone on and right now he is one of the bigger threats."
The U.S. defense made Akinola's goal stand up, with the central defense pairing of McKenzie and Chris Richards handling the few threats Honduras was able to put together, while the U.S. midfield once again controlled the tempo of the game.
Now the Americans move on to Wednesday's final against Mexico, which will give Ramos' team a chance to repeat as Concacaf Chmpions after winning the title a year ago.
"I think playing Mexico in the final is always a little bit more special, so I know the boys are looking forward to that," Ramos said. "They have some special players that we all know about, but I think general I think we have a good team too. We're here to win the final and that's what we're looking forward to."
"It'll be a physical game, a typical USA-Mexico game," McKenzie told Goal. "There's going to be hits every now and then, but there's also going to be good football in there as well. We want to come out on top so we've got to fight harder than them."
One thing is clear. Mexico will not sit back and defend against the Americans, or show the United States the sort of respect Honduras did on Monday. El Tri is sure to attack, and go after the Americans, and the U.S. players wouldn't have it any other way.
"Our mindset is always attack, so that's how we're going to come out against Mexico," U.S. midfielder Alex Mendez told Goal. "We're not going to change for anyone."