U.S. U-23s won't be going to London
Despite being a heavy favorite to emerge from the CONCACAF qualifying tournament with a ticket to the 2012 Olympics in London this summer in hand, the U.S. Under-23 national team was eliminated in a 3-3 tie to El Salvador Monday night.
Needing a win to advance from Group A after suffering a 2-0 upset to Canada on Saturday, the U.S. went ahead before a minute was up, surrendered its lead, went behind, equalized, went ahead again and allowed the game-tying goal in the very last minute of extra time.
A first-minute goal got the U.S. off to a flying start. Brek Shea broke through on the left and sent a cross into Terrence Boyd, who volleyed the ball into the net from close range.
But the Americans had trouble establishing their usual possession-dominating rhythm in the first half, discovering quickly that they were facing the strongest opponent in the tournament thus far. El Salvador competed for the ball and clogged the spaces well. This forced the U.S. to lump long balls to Shea and Boyd. And although Boyd did his best to be a handful in the box -- winning the ball in the 11th and putting himself through on goal before giving up possession -- this tactic was largely ineffective.
Crucially, keeper Bill Hamid tweaked his left ankle in the 31st minute. Within six minutes, El Salvador would twice punish his refusal to come off, or coach Caleb Porter's failure to substitute him. Undoubtedly, this will be picked apart in the coming weeks. In the 35th minute, Hamid failed to impose himself, or even move, on a corner to his near post. Lester Blanco rose over Kofi Sarkodi and headed in to equalize. In the 37th, Perry Kitchen and Jorge Villafana stood and watched as a low, straightforward cross into the box rolled toward the post, where Andres Flores beat the stumbling Hamid to the ball and slipped it underneath him and into the net. Shell-shocked and panicked, the U.S. barreled forward for the remainder of the half but produced little of consequence.
In the second half, El Salvador set about running down the clock, nibbling away the minutes with a series of time-wasting tactics. Mostly, El Salvador frustrated the U.S. by inviting the Americans into its own half before crashing the spaces and clearing the ball to send its opponent back to square one. Throughout the game, the U.S.'s midfield trio failed to secure enough of the ball to settle into a rhythm and provide service to the forwards. All the U.S. could muster, then, for 20 minutes, was a dangerous shot by Freddy Adu.
In the 64th minute, a flagging El Salvadoran defense slipped up. Boyd brought down a long punt from Sean Johnson (who had replaced the injured Hamid), whereupon Adu slipped Boyd a ball through the back line. Boyd finished cleanly, making it 2-2. Four minutes later, Joe Corona, anonymous throughout the game, found himself on the end of a rare dangerous cross from Adu at the second post and was allowed to head in the liberating goal. With the deficit overturned, the U.S. was seemingly on its way to the decisive semifinal game.
It had now fallen to the U.S. to ride out the game. But it fell into the same trap as El Salvador had. The Americans allowed themselves to be put under pressure and cede the initiative to their irked opponents, who grew increasingly aggressive. The Yanks appeared to be getting away with it, too. But in the fourth and final minute of extra time, Amobi Okugo lost track of playmaker Jaime Alas, who ran through the center of the U.S.'s defense and hit a bouncing shot that skipped awkwardly. Johnson punched the ball skyward, only to see it skip into the U.S. goal.
The U.S. had been unable to stamp its authority on a second consecutive game, allowing El Salvador entry points into the game time and again by failing to maintain possession. Brimming with talent, this U.S. team's failure to qualify for the Summer Games will be remembered as both a stain on a federation that failed to send a U-20 team to the 2011 World Cup and a blight on the resume of coaching prodigy Porter.
But given its performances, it's hard to argue that the U.S. deserved much better. Here are our player grades (10=best)
GK -- Bill Hamid, 3: Was convincing in the early going but should have indicated that he was in no condition to proceed after taking a knock in the 30th minute. El Salvador's first two goals could have been avoided by prompter interventions from Hamid (or the coach) before he came off in the 39th minute.
D -- Kofi Sarkodie, 4.5: Simply beaten in the air on the 1-1, Sarkodie was once again better going forward than he was defensively.
D -- Ike Opara, 4: Looked sharper than he had against Canada, but he failed to step out on Alas on the dooming 3-3.
D -- Perry Kitchen, 4: Kitchen was steady enough throughout the game, but he should have been more alert as the eventual 2-1 rolled past him.
D -- Jorge Villafana, 4.5: Impressive early on, Villafana just let Flores run by him undisturbed to make it 2-1.
M -- Amobi Okugo, 5.5: A seventh-minute yellow card took the sting out of his game but he nevertheless had a strong night plugging holes and shielding the defense. And then he let Alas run away from him to score the 3-3.
M -- Mix Diskerud, 5: Not a banner night for him, but not his worst either. He tried his best to distribute but was sometimes sloppy and didn't find enough of the ball to go around.
M -- Joe Corona, 4.5: Scored the goal that should have sent the U.S. through but was otherwise invisible. Like he had against Canada, Corona appeared completely lost.
F -- Freddy Adu, 7: Played out on the right again, a position where he never looked comfortable, Adu was most effective on set pieces and when he drifted inside. His two assists were incisive, however, and should have made the difference.
F -- Terrence Boyd, 7: Active and mobile, Boyd replaced Agudelo capably by providing a good target and getting teammates involved. He converted two of four big chances and should have been the hero of the night.
F -- Brek Shea, 6: Did good work disturbing the back line and picked up an assist. But his crossing often let him down.
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GK -- Sean Johnson, 4.5: Confidently stepped in for Hamid in the 39th minute and made a handful of crucial saves. But that bouncing shot that sent the U.S. crashing out may haunt him for years, as he probably should have dealt with it.
M -- Michael Stephens, Incomplete: An 88th minute substitute for Corona, Stephens had little impact.
F -- Joe Gyau, Incomplete: A 93rd minute time-wasting substitution.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderESPN.