The Americans had only a handful of seconds left to run out the clock and advance a step closer to the Olympics. With the pressure building with each tick, the victory slipped right through their hands.
Defender Perry Kitchen of Indianapolis, Ind., and Midfielder Michael Stephens of Naperville, Illinois are part of the U.S. U-23 Men's National Team and were hoping to move on to the Olympics with a berth in this tournament.
The United States found itself done Monday night when substitute Sean Johnson couldn't handle a long shot from Jaime Alas of El Salvador in stoppage time.
The ball bounced off his hands, up over him and into the net, and El Salvador ousted the United States from Olympic qualifying with a 3-3 tie.
The stunned Americans missed the Olympics for the second time since 1976 and second time in three games.
"This is probably the worst feeling I've ever felt in my life so far as a pro athlete," U.S. captain Freddy Adu said. "This is going to be hard to get over. But at the end of the day things like this happen. For me, I never want to feel this way again, and I'm going to do whatever it takes to never feel this way again."
The Americans had to win to reach Saturday's semifinals in Kansas City, Kan., and they led 3-2 on Joe Corona's goal in the 68th minute. Officials added 4 minutes of stoppage time onto the game, and U.S. coach Caleb Porter said they were "seconds away" from closing out the win and taking the top spot in Group A. A television clock showed the ball going in 4 minutes, 14 seconds into stoppage time.
What happened is something U.S. midfielder Mix Diskerud said no one wants to experience in life, something he couldn't believe.
"The last 20 minutes after our third goal, all those minutes felt like very, very long hours. But I thought we were going to make it. Everybody thought we were going to make it," Diskerud said.