With half as many teams making the field, it is actually tougher to qualify for the Olympics than it is to qualify for the World Cup.
From that standpoint, the hard part is over for Mexican and Honduran under-23 men’s national teams, which both will be among the 16 squads vying for gold medals this summer in London after notching wins in the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying semifinals Saturday at Livestrong Sporting Park.
“It was a hard road just to get to the qualifiers in the U.S., so it is great that we have qualified for the Olympics now,” said Honduras coach Luis Fernando Suarez, whose team outlasted El Salvador 3-2 in overtime to earn the berth.
Jubilation overtook the Hondurans, in particular, after playing 120 minutes before gutting out the victory.
“Everybody was singing tonight after the game. Everybody was excited and it was a lot of fun (in the locker room),” said Honduras midfielder Andy Najar, who assisted on Gerson Rodas’ game-winning extra-time goal. “It’s going to be an important thing for me in my career.”
Of course, the road only gets rougher now.
“It’s not done here and I hope the federation and our players know there is still a longer road ahead actually playing in the Olympic games,” Suarez said.
Technically, the road to the London Summer Games continues Monday when Honduras meets Mexico, which beat Suarez’s team 3-0 in pool play March 25 at the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles.
“We have to play well (tonight),” Mexico coach Luis Fernando Tena said. “They showed us the first time we played them – even though we beat them — that they could play with us the first 15 minutes. They are a tough team to play and we won’t take them lightly.”
The CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament championship kicks off at 7 p.m. at Livestrong Sporting Park, which might as well have been a considerably more cozy and modern version of Mexico City’s famous Estadio Azteca given the overwhelming crowd support from green-clad, flag-waving Mexican fans during a 3-1 semifinals win against Canada.
“We know that everywhere we go, we always have great support,” Tena said. “We always have great supporters and every time we play in the U.S., we feel like we’re at home.”
The backing shown by pro-Mexico partisan crowds isn’t lost on the players, who admit to enjoying a certain comfort level as a result.
It certainly played a role Saturday in helping settling the Mexican team when a scrappy Canadian side kept the game closer than expected.
Now, Mexico hopes its fans can help it pull off one more win.
“The people came to do their job and we did ours in the field,” Miguel Ponce said, “(but) don’t want to relax. The idea was to win this game and get a ticket to London, but we won’t relax. We have another important game and we have to do a nice job.”
Of course, Honduras, which now has qualified for three of the last four Olympics, isn’t prepared simply to roll over in its rematch.
“We’re very happy that we won, but I want our team to take the next game seriously,” Suarez said. “It’s great to know we’re already in and qualified, but we’re also here to win and need to take the game seriously.”