Dramatic finishes first dangled and then jerked away from the U.S. a trip to the London Olympics on a devastating evening for American soccer.
The Americans' under-23 national team rallied from a second-half deficit against El Salvador in the Group A finale and stood just seconds from the victory required to advance to CONCACAF's Olympic qualifying semifinals when a long-range shot -- and another goalkeeping miscue -- forged a 3-3 draw that ended U.S. hopes.
Jaime Alas' 30-yard blast more than four minutes into stoppage bounced off prematurely diving Sean Johnson and into the net Monday night in Nashville, Tenn., giving El Salvador (1-0-2) the group title and a March 31 semifinal showdown with the No. 2 team from Group B -- Honduras is expected -- for one of the region's two berths at this summer's London Games.
Canada (1-0-2), which on Saturday beat the U.S., 2-0, claimed A's other final-four berth with a 1-1 draw against Cuba and likely will face Mexico for an Olympic berth.
Keeping tabs on the road to London:
The U.S. (1-1-1), an overwhelming favorite to join Mexico in the 16-team London field, failed to qualify for the second time in three Olympics as a revived attack -- Philadelphia's Freddy Adu, FC Dallas' Brek Shea and German-born Terrence Boyd the instigators -- could not overcome subpar defending nor poor management by coach Caleb Porter.
The day had held so much promise. The Americans, expecting a winner-takes-all semifinal against Mexico should they win, were given a different path to London when Cuba's Maykel Reyes scored in the 91st minute to pull even with Canada. A victory would give the U.S. the top spot in Group A and prevent, almost certainly, the need to beat Mexico for an Olympic berth.
Then Boyd, a Borussia Dortmund forward, scored after 59 seconds. Things could be going no better.
Why it turned sour will be debated at length. Porter's lack of international experience was no help and his hesitation in replacing goalkeeper Bill Hamid after a 31st-minute ankle injury cost the Americans heavily.
With D.C. United's Hamid nearly rooted to one spot, El Salvador scored twice in 82 seconds: Lester Blanco headed home a corner kick in the 35th minute (that's three goals off corner kicks in two games) and Andres Flores raced past a frozen U.S. backline to tap home Alas' feed.
The U.S. rallied behind Adu, who fed Boyd's second goal in the 65th minute and Club Tijuana attacker Joe Corona's fourth of the tournament in the 68th, and the Americans' hold on a 3-2 advantage appeared solid.
They should have had a penalty kick in the 81st minute, when Salvadoran defender Alexander Larin bloodied Boyd's face away from the ball -- the officials missed it, but the cameras didn't -- and played with an extra man the rest of the way.
The decisive play anchored on Shea's inability to clear a ball and Philadelphia midfielder Amobi Okugo's failure to keep tabs on Alas, whose shot should not have been difficult for Johnson, a Chicago Fire goalkeeper who came on for Hamid after El Salvador's second goal. Blame for both goals against Canada went in part to errors by Hamid.
Porter called the loss “unimaginable” in a tearful postgame news conference, and he -- and U.S. Soccer -- can expect the brunt of criticism. Porter, who guided the University of Akron to the NCAA title 15 months ago and annually produces talent for Major League Soccer, had zero international experience and was given too much responsibility. His lineup choices were curious and he didn't respond decisively as the tenor of matches changed. He likely will be a very good coach at an advanced level, but he isn't yet, and U.S. Soccer's decision to appoint him last fall, whether or not Jurgen Klinsmann pushed for it, should be examined.
Canada looked set for a victory over Cuba (0-2-1) in the opener after a first-half goal by Montreal Impact rookie Evan James, but Reyes headed home Dayron Blanco's 91st-minute free kick for the tie.
Group B wraps up Tuesday at Home Depot Center, with Mexico (2-0-0) and Honduras (1-1-0) expected to cement their final-four spots as B1 and B2. Honduras faces Trinidad & Tobago (0-1-1), and a draw would be enough to get through unless Mexico, somehow, lost to Panama (0-1-1) in the second game of the doubleheader. T&T can go through with a win, unless Mexico loses. As for the Mexicans, even a loss isn't going to knock them off the top spot. Not unless something really crazy happens, like Mexico losing by four goals and Honduras winning by five.
GROUP A (Nashville, Tenn.)
1. x-El Salvador 1-0-2 (7-4) 5 points
2. x-Canada 1-0-2 (3-1) 5 points
3. United States 1-1-1 (9-6 GF-GA) 4 points
4. Cuba 0-2-1 (1-11) 1 point
Canada 0, El Salvador 0
United States 4 (Corona 11, 40, 88, Agudelo 37, own goal Diz Pe 43, Adu 62), Cuba 0
El Salvador 4 (Blanco 4, Flores 53, 80, Mendjivar 68), Cuba 0
United States 0, Canada 2 (Henry 58, Cavallini 82)
Canada 1 (James 25), Cuba 1 (Reyes 91+)
United States 3 (Boyd 1, 65, Corona 68), El Salvador 3 (Blanco 35, Flores 37, 95+)
GROUP B (Home Depot Center)
1. x-Mexico 2-0-0 (10-1 GF-GA) 6 points
2. Honduras 1-1-0 (3-4) 3 points
3. Panama 0-1-1 (2-4) 1 point
4. Trinidad & Tobago 0-1-1 (2-8) 1 point
Honduras 3 (Hernandez 19, Martinez 47, Lopez 87), Panama 1 (Glaize 55)
Mexico 7 (Pulido 29, Marco Fabian 33, 69, 85, Reyes 51, Jimenez 75, Cortes 91+), Trinidad & Tobago 1 (Molino 87)
Panama 1 (Godoy 69), Trinidad & Tobago (Winchester 93+)
Mexico 3 (Pulido 13, 40, 46), Honduras 0
Honduras vs. Trinidad & Tobago, 6 p.m. (Mun2)
Mexico vs. Panama, 8:30 p.m. (Telemundo)
FINAL FOUR (Kansas City, Kan.)
Saturday, March 31
B1 (Mexico or Honduras) vs. Canada, 3 p.m.
El Salvador vs. B2 (Mexico, Honduras, Panama or Trinidad & Tobago), 6 p.m.
Monday, April 2
Final, 5 p.m.
x - clinched semifinal berth
All times Pacific