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 By Tom Marshall

Honduras' new generation showing CONCACAF giants the way at Rio 2016

Honduras
Hondura will face host nation Brazil in the semifinals of the men's football Olympic tournament in Rio.

Reigning Olympic champion Mexico is still licking its wounds after a group stage exit at Rio 2016 and the United States never even got to pack its bags for the men's football tournament. Instead, it is Honduras that keeps the CONCACAF flag flying high, while the confederation's traditional giants wonder where it all went wrong.

Such negative thoughts are a long way away for a Honduran team that will look to make history on Wednesday with a shock victory over hosts Brazil in the semifinal at the Maracana, the spiritual home of Brazilian soccer.

"We are going to keep bringing joy to the Honduran people, who deserve it in one way or another," said Honduras coach Jorge Luis Pinto after defeating Korea Republic 1-0 in the quarterfinal. "Football is everything [in Honduras] and we are doing everything possible."

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Pinto said the goal ahead of the Olympics was to reach the semifinal, but now, Honduras is dreaming of a major sporting upset and there is reason to think the team can give a Neymar-led Brazil a difficult test. After all, the Central American nation has already advanced from a group that included Portugal and Argentina and deservedly got past a strong Korea Republic side in the quarters.

This is a Honduran team that knows exactly what its coach is asking for, something perhaps that couldn't be said about Mexico or the United States in the same age category. The team spirit also looks to be high. And the architect of it all has been Pinto, who took over a Honduras team in December 2014 looking for fresh faces to replace the likes of Wilson Palacios, Maynor Figueroa, Carlos Costly, Noel Valladares and Jerry Bengston -- a generation that helped Los Catrachos to their second and third World Cups in 2010 and 2014. That is already happening with eight of the Olympic squad named in Pinto's squad for upcoming World Cup qualifying games against Canada and Mexico.

Goalkeeper Luis "Buba" Lopez, 22, was outstanding against Korea Republic and kept his team in the match, Kevin Alvarez has impressed at right wing-back, while striker Anthony "Choco" Lozano -- long one to watch in Honduras -- finally seems to be living up to his potential both at Tenerife in Spain's second division and with two goals in four games at the Olympics.

Honduras coach Pinto Jorge Luis
Honduras coach Jorge Luis Pinto has exceeded expectations by taking Honduras to the semifinals in Rio.

The two really outstanding players so far, however, have been right-winger Alberth "Panterita" Elis and holding midfielder Bryan Acosta. Captain Acosta seems like he is everywhere, breaking up opposition attacks and starting Honduras' counter-attacks with intelligent distribution of the ball.

The direct and rapid Elis is one of the recipients of the solid base Acosta and Allan Banegas provide in central midfield. The United States know all about Elis after he scored both goals as Honduras knocked them out of CONCACAF Olympic qualifying. Now others are cottoning on and the 20-year-old Olimpia player from San Pedro Sula -- reported to be the world's most dangerous city -- has been linked with a host of European clubs.

But the individuals wouldn't have got this far without the strength of the unit and Pinto is delighted with how hard the players have fought and how mentally strong they have been.

"The secret is the work we have done," Pinto explained in quotes carried by Diez. "It has been extraordinary, advancing from a scientific point of view ... [and] tactical team-work."

Pinto is borderline obsessive when it comes to tactics and even has his own website dedicated to strategies. Critics would say the 5-4-1 Pinto used with Costa Rica to get to the quarterfinal of the World Cup in 2014 was somewhat negative, but Honduras' Olympic team is showing it to be just as effective. The explosive defense-attack transition is the key and few teams would be comfortable with the pace Elis and Romell Quioto provide on the flanks. In time, Honduras' players may even be more suited to the counter-attacking style than Los Ticos.

Despite all that, Honduras are clearly the underdog at the Maracana on Wednesday, although Pinto is adamant his team is looking forward to attempting to pull off a historic result.

"Everything is possible," said Pinto. "Nobody predicted the 7-1 [loss] against Germany in the World Cup ... Nobody expected the 'maracanazo' in 1950 ... We respect Brazil, but the shirts don't scare us, the stadium can scream, but it is the footballers playing ... The Maracana will be nice for the Honduran people, for the players and for me. It's exciting." said Pinto.

But whatever happens on Wednesday, the message from Honduras at Rio 2016 to its CONCACAF rivals moving forward is clear: the next generation has arrived and is ready for battle.

Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.

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