It wasn't supposed to go down like this.
The US Men's U-23 Olympic Qualifying Team were supposed to be a shoo-in for a trip to London this summer, but the qualification tournament in Nashville had become dire. Thursday's 6-0 thrashing of Cuba was undermined by a surprise 0-2 loss to Canada on Saturday - forcing Monday night's match against El Salvador to be a must-win match to keep chances of qualification alive. With elimination on the line, a markedly physical game in front of nearly 8,000 ended with El Salvador finding a miracle goal in stoppage time and tying the US 3-3, eliminating the USA.
Hopes were high as the US roared to a start, with Terrence Boyd scoring after just 59 seconds of a volley served up by Brek Shea. But the toll of the group stage started to emerge, as most players were getting their third start in five days. Rapidly tiring legs—and an injury to goalkeeper Bill Hamid in the 31st minute—allowed El Salvador to both level and then pull into the lead in the span of four minutes late in the first half.
The US wouldn't be put down quietly, and again reversed the score line soon after opening the second half. An onrushing Boyd slid into a Freddy Adu pass in the goal box to level the game at 2-2, and Joe Corona's header just three minutes later put the Americans into the lead once more.
El Salvador would have been content to sit back on their lead. With multiple players collapsing on the field after challenges, cries went up from fans and pundits about time-wasting tactics. With the US back in the lead with twenty minutes to play, La Selecta resorted to more physical play. In the most egregious incident, Terrence Boyd was punched squarely in the nose by Alexander Larin away from the ball, drawing blood and requiring medical treatment. It was clearly deserving of a red card, yet referee Roberto Garcia didn't see the assault, nor did the linesman.
With four minutes of stoppage time, all the US had to do was kill the game off, but El Salvador chased hard for chances and eventually found a miracle. With time nearly elapsed, midfielder Jamie Alas launched a bomb of a shot from 20 yards out. Substitution goalkeeper Sean Johnson had it covered, but couldn't get ahold of it, deflecting it upwards instead of away - and the ball sailed over him and into the net, putting the dagger in the US dreams of London.
The result saw the US finish third in their group, with El Salvador and Canada moving on to the knock-out round. US coach Caleb Morris was visibly shaken in the post-match press conference, saying "For me, it’s painful that they have to suffer like this given what they gave in that second half. It’s unbearable."
For American soccer fans, hopes of Olympic gold will rest with the women's team, who qualified for London back in January.
Update: Here are the official "highlights" from CONCACAF: