NASHVILLE, Tenn. – On a night of swings and dips and controversy and drama – and one catastrophic error – the United States' Olympic dreams were washed away amid a flood of tears.
The most rudimentary of follies from substitute goalkeeper Sean Johnson in the final seconds of injury time eliminated USA from the CONCACAF qualifying tournament in the cruelest fashion possible, as El Salvador snatched a 3-3 draw at LP Field.
The suddenness of it all, the end of an adventure that was supposed to span several more months and cross the Atlantic to London, was too much for many players and head coach Caleb Porter to bear.
Porter bravely fought back tears in his press conference, nerves still raw and shredded, scarcely able to believe the hand fate had dealt him and his young team. Olympic soccer is played by squads of players in the Under-23 age bracket and, for some, Monday may have been their final night in a USA shirt.
Porter and Johnson had embraced in the locker room; the coach tried desperately to find some words of solace to offer a young man whose world collapsed with a mistimed dive that he would normally complete without a second thought.
"I just hugged him," Porter said. "Cried with him. Can you imagine? He feels like he has let everyone down, let his teammates down. I told him he didn't.
"I have never experienced anything like that. I have never felt anything like this in my life. That's honest. The worst part about the way it ended is that we don't have any more time together. They showed a lot of the things we are known for in this country. Heart, passion, grit. They deserved better."
While USA may not have deserved such a brutal ending, it was in many ways the architect of its own demise. A dismal 2-0 defeat to Canada in the second game of Group A left the team needing to beat El Salvador to reach the semifinal round and move to within one game of London. Thanks to an extraordinary choke from Canada in Monday's early game – it drew 1-1 with Cuba – a victory would have given the Americans a No.1 seed for the semis and likely seen them avoid Mexico. CONCACAF's top two teams will go to London so a win against El Salvador would've meant a match against the likes of Honduras or Trinidad and Tobago to earn an Olympic bid.
Johnson will bear the brunt of the blame, but the Americans should have had the match wrapped up much earlier. Despite some highly questionable tactics from the visitors – Freddy Adu and Mix Diskerud both claimed they were bitten by their opponents – poor defending and a lack of execution are as much to blame for the result as Johnson's howler.
[ Slideshow: El Salvador nabs 3-3 draw after injury-time equalizer ]
Terrence Boyd gave USA the perfect start with an excellent left-footed strike after just 62 seconds and put the team in pole position. El Salvador responded though, and goals from Lester Blanco and Andres Flores put the Central Americans ahead before the interval. First-choice goalkeeper Bill Hamid was at fault for the second, an injury sustained minutes earlier preventing him from collecting a low cross in front of the goal. Soon after the score he was limping off, to be replaced by the fateful Johnson.
A resurgent USA responded well in the second half and Boyd added a second at the 65-minute mark. When Joe Corona put the U.S. ahead three minutes later, dreams of a London trip once again bubbled up.
It looked like it would be enough as El Salvador grew increasingly frustrated in the waning minutes. Then, in the blink of an eye, Jaime Alas squeezed through two defenders and launched a speculative effort towards goal. Despite the ball bouncing in front of him, Johnson should have had little trouble in collecting it. Instead, it slithered through his grasp, and bounced into the net.
Within seconds the field was strewn with U.S. players, drained of energy and spirit by fortune's poisonous touch.
American soccer has precious few opportunities to make its mark on a national audience and while the World Cup every four years is the big draw, the Olympics also present a chance for some positive airtime.
But not this time. Players like Boyd, Freddy Adu and Brek Shea may have bright days ahead of them on the senior men's team, but this was supposed to be their time, their chance to carry a team not just to the Olympics but to arrive there with a legitimate shot at making waves.
Instead, this squad is no more. A new cycle begins, with mostly new players.
"It's a painful moment," Porter admitted. "The players are devastated. To put in as much as they put in that game. As low and as painful as this is, it won't define their careers. I am proud of them. They are not perfect but they have nothing to be ashamed about."
Maybe not, but this will be a memory that burns deep. Only time will tell how long the private haunting will continue, yet there is no doubt that this night will never be forgotten by a group of players who saw their cherished prize snatched away with heartbreaking finality.
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