An incredible end to its World Cup qualifying campaign saw the United States come from behind to beat Panama 3-2 on Tuesday – and save archrival Mexico from disaster.
With just minutes remaining in Panama City, a 2-1 lead looked like it would be enough for the home side to leapfrog Mexico into fourth place and keep alive its hopes of competing against the world's best. At that stage, Mexico trailed Costa Rica 2-1 on the road and looked doomed.
But then U.S. midfielder Graham Zusi popped up to head in a late equalizer that will surely be one of the most unusual goals of his career. It may be one of the most unpopular goals in the history of the national team, as most American fans gleefully hoped their fiercest foe Mexico would suffer the embarrassment of being knocked out.
Demoralized, Panama then conceded another goal seconds later when Aron Johannsson struck for the U.S. to complete an extraordinary turnaround and give the Mexicans new life. El Tri will now face New Zealand in a two-legged playoff next month with a World Cup place on the line.
Panama's despair was echoed around the globe as World Cup group qualifying wound toward its conclusion.
Heartbreak was everywhere. In Europe, each second-place group finisher earns a playoff spot and a chance to reach Brazil – except one. Denmark was the odd team out, left to rue coming within a minute of beating Italy last week before conceding a late equalizer.
Then there was the misfortune of Egypt. The miracle work of former U.S. coach Bob Bradley powered the Pharaohs' through their African qualification group, only for them to be drawn against Ghana in the playoffs. Bradley had inspired his men despite Egypt's domestic league being cancelled following severe political upheaval, but Tuesday's 6-1 first-leg defeat effectively ended Egypt's chances and likely the American coach's tenure.
Plenty of big names can still miss out on Brazil, including Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal and 1998 champion France. Those two teams are in danger of being drawn together in next month's European playoffs. Also, playoff-bound is 2010 semifinalist Uruguay, the fifth-place finisher in South America's group and destined for a showdown with Jordan. La Celeste should win, but stranger things have happened.
Indeed, the events in Panama City were about as strange as it gets. Panama scored early through Gabriel Torres to give itself a fighting chance but still needed Mexico to lose to stay in contention.
That possibility became a reality in the second half when the Mexicans went behind for the second and ultimately final time, thanks to Alvaro Saborio of Major League Soccer's Real Salt Lake. The problem was, that almost simultaneously, Panama conceded an equalizer to the U.S., with Michael Orozco flicking the ball home to make it 1-1.
Needing a goal, Panama threw men forward and got what it thought was its magical moment with six minutes left. Substitute Luis Tejada bundled the ball home amid a packed penalty area to send Panama to the verge of glory. However, a dose of panic set in. Instead of doing the simple things needed to close out the game, Panama lost possession too easily, failed to eat up clock and forgot to track back in numbers.
The Americans didn't have any desperate motivation to help Mexico, but professional players will take simple opportunities that are laid before them. So it was for Zusi, who was unguarded in the area when he connected with Brad Evans' cross for the dramatic coup de grace. Johansson, too, looked almost apologetic as he fired in the clincher just before the whistle, but he was not about to pass up a clear scoring chance.
For the U.S., this was a reminder of how tense these final round games can be and why it is so important to take care of business early. That they did so in this World Cup qualifying campaign will come as a relief and the building for Brazil now begins in earnest.
For others, like Mexico, there is still another chance to get there. For the defeated, like Panama, there are endless painful months to wonder what might have been.
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