For every single one of the 95 minutes at LP Field, the U.S. and El Salvador traded blows in a twisting, physical encounter. The U.S. scored in the first minute. El Salvador scored in the last, and in the end, with nothing between them, a 3-3 tie left the Americans collapsed on the field, their Olympic dreams dead.
After fighting back from a 2-1 halftime deficit, the U.S. led 3-2 deep into injury time before a Jamie Alas shot in the 95th minute skidded off of backup goalkeeper Sean Johnson's hand and into the goal.
A clearly emotional U.S. coach Caleb Porter was shellshocked after the game.
"The players are devastated. To put as much as they put into the second half, to be seconds away from getting the No. 1 seed, it's unimaginable," Porter said, his voice drained.
It had been a dream start for the Americans. Winger Brek Shea raced to the endline and played a perfect cross for striker Terrance Boyd who volleyed it home with just 1:01 gone on the clock. The goal immediately looked like it would deny El Salvador any chance to sit back in a shell and play for a tie.
But the Salvadorians regained their composure and quickly began moving the game into the U.S. half of the field. The momentum turned on a 30th minute injury to U.S. goalkeeper Bill Hamid. After receiving treatment from the medical staff, Hamid stayed in the game but was never comfortable. He was hobbled by a lower leg injury.
Then, bang-bang, the game was tied.
El Salvador pressed in the 34th minute, with Isidro Guttierez shooting the ball wide. Less than a minute later, Andres Flores tied it up, blistering a header past Hamid. A minute after that, the Salvadorians led when Andres Flores knocked another past a slow-to-react Hamid.
The D.C. United keeper was done. Chicago Fire goalie Sean Johnson replaced him in the 39th minute.
In the second half, El Salvador attempted to emulate the Canadian strategy of the second game that gave the U.S. fits. They defended in numbers — and marked all of the American midfielders — as the game was played increasingly in El Salvador's end.
U.S. captain Freddy Adu nearly tied it in the 57th minute, moving to the right side of the box before wheeling and putting the ball onto his favored left foot. A dipping shot just inside the post was saved by Salvadorian keeper Diego Cuellar.
He wouldn't have to wait long for another chance, though. Adu slipped a ball into Boyd and the striker equalized in the 65th minute. Three minutes later, Adu again picked out a teammate with a cross — this time Joe Corona — and like that the U.S. lead was restored.
An already chippy game got increasingly physical as the game wore on. Even though they appeared to be receiving the brunt of physical play, including Boyd getting a punch straight in the mouth, the U.S. received three cards in the second half. El Salvador received one.
As the clock wound down, the game grew more frantic as each team became stretched. In the 95th minute the Salvadorians made one last push forward, splitting the U.S. midfield and Alas launched a dipping shot from 25 yards which Johnson seemed in position to handle. But the spin on the ball caused it to pop up and over his head, and into an open net.
With the tie, the U.S. finished third in group A with four points. Though they finished tied with Canada, El Salvador won the group on the basis of goal differential, and will likely face Honduras or Trinidad and Tobago.
After the game, Porter said that he hugged and cried with a nearly inconsolable Johnson in the locker room.
"He feels like he's let everybody down," Porter said. "The kid's got a big future. And he was very good in the game" after replacing Hamid.
For Porter, it marks the end of his U.S. coaching career for now. He'll return to the University of Akron, where his teams have been among the best in the collegiate ranks the last few years.
Boyd said that he expects great things from this group of players, despite their disappointing performance.
"I think you'll see a lot of these guys [at the World Cup] in Brazil," he said.
— When the lineup sheets were handed out for the Canada-Cuba game, one player had a special notation by his name: Yosmel de Armas (A-Not Present). During major tournaments through out the last decade, Cuban players have defected, aided by the Cuban-American community. The most notable was Maykel Galindo, who later starred for Chivas in MLS. An official for CONCACAF, the soccer regional governing body, would not comment on the matter. Metro Nashville police spokesman Don Aaron said that the department was unaware of any defections.
After the game, Cuban coach Raul Gonzalez didn't want to talk about the matter, saying only that Armas had "been sick."
"The player who wasn't here was very sick yesterday and in practice," Gonzalez said in a postgame press conference. "He twisted his ankle and was at the hotel. If something else happened, I really don't know about it."
In January, women's team players Yisel Rodriguez and Yezenia Gallardo defected during the women's Olympic qualifying tournament. Striker Yosniel Mesa defected during the 2011 Gold Cup while two others — Osvaldo Alonso and Lester More — left during the 2007 Gold Cup.
— Canada fell to the second position in the group when Cuba tied them 1-1 with a goal in the 91st minute. The tie means they will likely face the powerful Mexican team in the semifinals.
— Boyd talked about the physicality of his first CONCACAF games. Raised in Germany and playing for a German team, he was taken aback by both the rough play and the theatrics of some of the players. "I never played in a game like this physically. In Europe, if you do just one thing, the ref will see it," he said. "I was surprised when there were so many fouls when he didn't blow the whistle. When he just punched me in the face and I was bleeding, the ref didn't see it."
— The loss marks the second time in three Olympic cycles that the U.S. failed to qualify for the Games. This follows the failure of the U-20 side to reach the youth world cup last year. Porter said he was unconcerned that these would set U.S. soccer back. "This country is evolving. Even if it doesn't show in this tournament or the U-20 tournament," he said, noting the more positive style the Americans are playing at all levels. "You can't always measure in results. Sometimes you have to win less in order to evolve. It will show in results in the future if we stick to the plan we're following."
— U.S. men's senior coach Jurgen Klinsmann watched the game in person and was in the locker room after the game. Players told reporters that Klinsmann was pleased with how they played in the second half and that he was proud of their performance.
— Boyd said he was glad he had chosen to play for the U.S. over Germany. "I'm proud of my team. For the first time today, I really felt what it's like to fight for your country. I mean, it was an amazing game for the fans today. Unfortunately, we didn't qualify, it's sad. I think you'll see a lot of these guys in Brazil."
US (4-3-3): Hamid (Johnson, 39'); Sarkodie, Opara, Kitchen, Villafana; Okugo, Diskerud, Corona (Stephens, 89'); Shea, Boyd, Adu (Gyau, 90+)
El Salvador: Cuellar (GK); Molina, Garcia, Mendoza, Chavarria (Ceren 72'), Gutierrez, Alas, Larin, Menjivar, Blanco (Sosa, 87'), Cuellar, Flores
US: Boyd (2', 65'), Corona (68')
ES: Blanco (34') Flores (36'), Alas (95')
US: Okugo (7'), Villafana (72'), Adu (74'), Boyd (90')
ES: Chavarria (4'), Blanco (7'), Mendoza (87')