The unthinkable transpired in Nashville, Tenn., as the favored U.S. Under-23 men's national team failed to get out of its own group in its attempt to qualify for the summer's Olympics following a 3-3 draw with El Salvador. Here are three thoughts and player ratings following a stunning result:
1. This is a massive disappointment.
With a roster full of MLS professionals and abroad-based players either already getting first-team minutes or on the cusp of doing so, this U.S. team was supposed to coast to an Olympic berth. The fact that it won't even get a chance to compete in the deciding semifinal round, while playing on U.S. soil no less, is downright shocking.
There are excuses to be made, substitutes that coach Caleb Porter could have used earlier, unmade calls that could have altered the outcome -- the late deliberate forearm to Terrence Boyd's nose should have been a straight red, for instance -- but in the end, a talented group of budding American prospects completely under-delivered.
The path to London had been carved by Cuba, which tied Canada earlier in the night and paved the way for the United States to avoid Mexico in the semifinals if only it could have beaten El Salvador. Instead a crack at the semifinals is not in the cards, but a summer full of what-ifs most certainly is.
2. U.S. goalkeepers let the team down.
Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson were thought to be the least of the United States' worries entering this tournament. Instead, both young MLS goalkeepers will have to progress in their careers knowing that each was a big part of the problem in the United States failing to move on.
Johnson's howler of Jaime Alas' last-second shot was the culmination of a complete team breakdown -- a failed clearance, followed by a failure to track back, followed by a failure to close out -- but it is a save he has to make in every situation, let alone with the game and Olympic hopes on the line. Johnson, a first-half injury substitute for Hamid, had come up with a couple of efforts before that instant that kept the United States afloat, but nobody will remember those in the aftermath of this debacle.
Hamid, meanwhile, was not his usual aggressive self against Canada, and he followed it up with another sub-standard showing, although the two goals he conceded Monday were after tweaking his ankle. Even so, the psyche of a young goalkeeper is fragile, and the lingering effects of this tournament can either serve as motivation or be totally detrimental to both players. Time will tell.
3. What are the long-term effects?
For players on the path to becoming the future of the senior national team, failing to qualify for a major international tournament is becoming a disturbing trend. Four players on this U-23 team -- Zarek Valentin, Perry Kitchen, Amobi Okugo and Joe Gyau -- were part of the favored U-20 team that did not qualify for last summer's World Cup. That's not to say that it is a clear indication of the future, but it's far from a comfortable development to cultivate a culture of coming up short. And failing to get the chance to compete in international competitions means these players are missing out on the chance to go up against the world's best and continue their development.
Nations can fail to qualify for the Olympics and still have their young players go on to success. Look at Mexico in 2008 and the United States in 2004. But the fact of the matter is, when trying to create a federation-wide standard of winning and excellence, coming up short repeatedly only leads to self doubt down the road.
As a side, what about all of the emerging dual-national prospects who are considering the United States but see a track record of failure? Does another qualifying setback change their opinions or preferences going forward?
And as for Porter, some will question his merits as a coach on this level, but he is and will continue to be one of U.S. Soccer's brightest young minds. Unfortunately for him, he failed to deliver with a team that should have gotten the job done. He's far from finished as a coaching prospect, and he can use this as the ultimate learning experience, but in the end, his individual approach was just not good enough.
GK, Bill Hamid, 4.5 -- Did not look to have a dip in confidence after his shocker against Canada but tweaked his ankle and got beaten near the post on a corner kick and, amid complete confusion, couldn't quite get to the bending ball before Andres Flores' goal. He needed to be subbed out after the goal, which ultimately cost Caleb Porter a substitute he could have sorely used later in the match.
D, Jorge Villafana, 4.5 -- Had the pace to hang with El Salvador's wingers and started strong, but was burned by Isidro Gutierrez on a few occasions and was among the four that got caught ball-watching on the second El Salvador goal. Never got the chance to contribute much going forward, and completely gave away possession on a late free kick that could have been used to kill more clock.
D, Perry Kitchen, 4.5 -- Like Villafana, watched as Flores rounded the defense to get to Jaime Alas' bending shot-turned-cross. Making matters worse, his giveaway in a horrible part of the field led to the scoring sequence that put the U.S. in a 2-1 hole. Of all the U.S. defenders, he was probably the most stable, but that's not saying much for a unit that never really inspired confidence.
D, Ike Opara, 4 -- Just never looked comfortable or at ease during the tournament against Cuba, Canada or El Salvador and failed to close out space on Alas on his game-winning shot. Also, while a step behind the rest of the defensive line, turned away instead of attempting to make a play on the ball as Alas' cross grazed by him untouched for the earlier goal. Just an all-around sub-par showing.
D, Kofi Sarkodie, 4.5 -- Had the brutal assignment of being matched up with Alas, and while Sarkodie held his own early, the talented Salvadoran winger ultimately won out. Also let Lester Blanco get position in front of him for the header that brought El Salvador level at 1-1.
M, Amobi Okugo, 4 -- Out of control in the beginning of the game, picked up an early yellow and nearly picked up second that would have left the U.S. down a man for the bulk of the match. Recovered and made a few sporadic tackles to protect the defendse but also leisurely tracked Alas in the moments before the game-winning goal.
M, Joe Corona, 5.5 -- Corona had an awkward game. For the second straight match he contributed little over the duration of the match, but he also turned in what appeared to be the game-winning goal with his header off Freddy Adu's cross. An uneven tournament to say the least for the confident, composed attacker.
M, Mix Diskerud, 5 -- His service off corner kicks never gave the U.S. players a chance to take advantage of their height edge, and he was far from the maestro that picked apart Cuba on Thursday. Had a part in Corona's goal, playing the ball out wide that Adu ultimately crossed.
F, Brek Shea, 6 -- Shea's play in the opening minutes was top notch, as he repeatedly won his matchup on the left and fed Terrence Boyd for the opening-minute goal. His effectiveness waned as the match wore on and his legs began to tire. He also failed to come up with a clearance in the final seconds, electing instead to try and connect a short pass, which was errant and led to El Salvador's last-second equalizer sequence.
F, Terrence Boyd, 7 -- His two goals were finished with absolute class, and if there's a positive to take from the night, it's that Boyd has the makings of a star. Boyd's toughness, work rate, willingness to come back for the ball and ability to be a lethal finisher were all on display.
F, Freddy Adu, 7.5 -- Adu absolutely carried the U.S. in the second half, assisting on the tying and go-ahead goals, and he walked off the field a proud and deserved captain. Unfortunately for him, his teammates couldn't hold on in the brief moments, and his effort went to waste.
GK, Sean Johnson, 4 -- Had come up with a diving effort to deny one attempt at an equalizer but completely flubbed Alas' last-second shot, parrying it into his own goal and costing the U.S. a trip to the semifinals. For all of Johnson's talents, he has a knack for not making a clean save from time to time, and this instance came at the worst possible time.
M, Michael Stephens, N/A -- Was subbed on for Corona in the 88th minute and didn't have much time to make an impact. Tried to feed Boyd in the final third when the forward was offside and also came up with a challenge that should have led to the U.S. punting the ball and killing the game.
M, Joe Gyau, N/A -- Like Stephens, was subbed on in the final moments to take time off the clock. Probably should have been brought on earlier to interject life into what was clearly a tiring and overworked U.S. midfield.