By Charles Boehm
The United States Under-23 Men’s National Team took its fans on a rollercoaster ride in its final game of CONCACAF Olympic qualifying on Monday night, twice taking a lead over El Salvador only to fumble away victory deep in injury time and crash out of contention for a place in the 2012 Summer Olympics due to a 3-3 draw at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn.
“It’s a painful moment. The players are devastated,” a distraught Porter told the media afterwards. “To put in as much as they put in that game, the amount of heart they put in, to play the way they played in that second half to come from behind and score two goals, to be seconds away from getting the No. 1 seed, it’s unimaginable.”
German-American striker Terrence Boyd got the U.S. off to a dream start, skillfully finishing Brek Shea’s endline cross in the first minute of the game to give the Yanks a 1-0 lead. But as the first half wore on, there were signs of more of the same unsteadiness that plagued coach Caleb Porter’s defense in the first two games of this event, and the game took a turn when U.S. goalkeeper Bill Hamid injured his left ankle while stepping forward to corral a low cross through the goalmouth half an hour in.
The Annandale, Va. native received treatment and continued on, only to give up two goals in less than two minutes. Salvadoran forward Lester Blanco outmaneuvered two defenders on a corner kick and thumped a header past Hamid at the near post to level the score, then Andres Flores scampered behind a static U.S. back line to slot Jaime Alas’ angled cross/shot into the net to give the Central Americans a shock 2-1 lead.
A gimpy Hamid soon exited the game in favor of backup Sean Johnson, but El Salvador had a precious lead and did their best to hold it, doing their best to kill time with injuries and other gamesmanship.
The pressure was squarely on the shoulders of the favored U.S. squad, and some responded better than others. Team captain Freddy Adu shook off an ineffective start to lead a second-half revival, probing the Salvadoran rearguard and eventually crafting a breakthrough in the 65th minute as he laid a beautiful pass into the path of Boyd’s path for the Borussia Dortmund striker to draw the score level at 2-2.
Less than four minutes later, Adu had the U.S. fans in the Nashville crowd – which also included a vocal Salvadoran contingent – on their feet as he lofted a right-wing cross to the far post, where Joe Corona leaped highest to direct a downward header just inside the woodwork to push the score to 3-2 in the Yanks’ favor.
An already-physical affair turned ugly ten minutes from full time, when El Salvador defender Alexander Larin landed a blow to Boyd’s face well away from the ball, sending a stream of blood down Boyd’s nose. Mexican referee Roberto Garcia apparently did not see the punch, however, and no punishment was handed out.
The U.S. seemed to have survived the game’s nervy conclusion when disaster struck in the dying seconds, as a sequence of errors unfolded to hand the game – and a semifinal berth – to the Salvadorans in the 5th minute of injury time. First, winger Brek Shea gave up possession cheaply to allow a quick move in the opposite direction, then defenders Ike Opara and Kofi Sarkodie stood off as Alas advanced towards the U.S. goal and unleashed a speculative drive from nearly 30 yards out.
The shot seemed unlikely to beat Johnson, yet it bounced in front of the Chicago Fire netminder at an awkward moment and he made a hash of his diving save, deflecting the ball over his own shoulder and into the net to hand El Salvador an epic 3-3 draw that ends the Yanks’ dreams of competing for a gold medal in London this summer.
“It’s sad that I’m not going to get a chance to be in the trenches with those guys anymore. They did everything I asked,” said Porter. “They made some mistakes that cost us the game. The guys have long careers ahead of them. I’m proud of those guys and I know they’re going to do great things in the future. I’m sorry for our fans, sorry for U.S. Soccer that we didn’t get the job done. But there’s nothing to be ashamed about.”
The result leaves the U.S. U-23s at 1-1-1 for the tournament, putting them in third place in Group A behind El Salvador and Canada, respectively, both of whom advance to the semifinals in Kansas City, Kan. El Salvador play the second-place team from Group B, while Canada will likely face Mexico, who have already qualified for the knockout stages with one group game to spare.
U.S. U-23 Men’s National Team Match Report
Match: U.S. U-23 Men’s National Team vs. El Salvador
Date: March 26, 2012
Competition: CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying – Group A
Venue: LP Field; Nashville, Tenn.
Kickoff: 8 p.m. CT
Weather: 65 degrees, clear
Scoring Summary: 1 2 F
USA 1 2 3
SLV 2 1 3
USA – Terrence Boyd (Brek Shea) 1st minute
SLV – Lester Blanco (Isidro Gutierrez) 35
SLV – Andres Flores (Jaime Alas) 37
USA – Terrence Boyd (Freddy Adu) 65
USA – Joe Corona (Freddy Adu) 68
SLV – Jaime Alas 90+4
USA: 1-Bill Hamid (18-Sean Johnson, 39); 3-Kofi Sarkodie, 2-Ike Opara, 4-Perry Kitchen,13-Jorge Villafaña; 16-Amobi Okugo, 8-Mix Diskerud, 10-Joe Corona (20-Michael Stephens, 88); 7-Freddy Adu (capt.) (14-Joe Gyau, 90+3), 15-Terrence Boyd, 11-Brek Shea
Subs not used: 5-Zarek Valentin, 6-Jared Jeffrey, 12-Teal Bunbury, 17-Tony Taylor, 19-Sheanon Williams
Head coach: Caleb Porter
SLV: 18-Yimy Cuellar; 5-Alexander Mendoza, 4-Xavier Garcia (capt.), 2-Milton Molina, 13-Alexander Larin; 9-Isidro Gutierrez, 8-Diego Chavarria (19-Darwin Ceren, 73), 16-Richard Menjivar, 10-Jaime Alas; 20-Andres Flores, 17-Lester Blanco (14-Herbert Sosa, 87)
Subs not used: 1-Diego Cuellar, 3-Marlon Martinez, 6-Elman Rivas, 7-Dustin Corea, 12-Edwin Sanchez, 15-Jorge Moran
Head coach: Mauricio Alfaro
Stats Summary: USA / SLV
Shots 9 / 10
Shots on Goal 5 / 5
Saves 2 / 2
Corner Kicks 4 / 5
Fouls 15 / 14
Offsides 1 / 1
SLV – Diego Chavarria (caution) 5th minute
SLV – Lester Blanco (caution) 7
USA – Amobi Okugo (caution) 7
USA – Jorge Villafaña (caution) 72
USA – Freddy Adu (caution) 74
SLV – Alexander Mendoza (caution) 87
USA – Terrence Boyd (caution) 90
Referee: Roberto Garcia (MEX)
Assistant Referee 1: Juan Rangel (MEX)
Assistant Referee 2: Dion Neil (TRI)
Fourth Official: Hector Gonzalez (HON)
ussoccer.com Man of the Match: Terrence Boyd