Olympic Qualifying: Caleb Porter
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Olympic Qualifying: US dream dies against El Salvador

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Caleb Porter didn't need to open his mouth. The agony on his face said more than words ever would.

But the United States Under-23 coach did talk following a last-second El Salvador goal sent the Americans home from CONCACAF Olympic qualifying in stunning fashion.

"It's a painful moment," he said during a press conference in the bowels of LP Field. "The players are devastated. To put in as much as they put into that game, the amount of heart that they put in, to play the way they played in the second half. To be behind and score two goals. To be seconds away from getting the No. 1 seed. It's unimaginable.

"I've never felt like this before. And that's honest."

The USA entered the final fixture of Group A play needing a victory to advance. Terrence Boyd responded to the challenge by scoring in the first minute off a Brek Shea assist. After El Salvador tallied two goals before halftime, the Americans gamely fought back with a second from the German-American striker and one from Joe Corona.

The Stars and Stripes, visibly tiring but gamely holding on, were still ahead when the fourth official showed four minutes of stoppage time.

Then, disaster.

A turnover gave El Salvador's Jaime Alas the ball 40 yards from the USA net. The midfielder took a few touches and sent a 25-yard shot toward American goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who had replaced an injured Bill Hamid in the 39th minute. The ball bounced near the six-yard box, and the Chicago Fire No. 1 went to punch it away. Instead, it deflected off his gloves, hung horrifyingly in air and floated into the net.

"I just hugged him," Porter said when asked what he told Johnson. "Cried with him. What more do you do?"

Just like the U-20 side that didn't qualify for the World Cup after failing in Guatemala last spring, this was a team that had the talent to go deep into any tournament.

Instead, the journey is over four months early on a field in Tennessee. 

"The worst part about the way this ended was that we don't have any more time together," Porter said. "This was a tight team. [There was] great spirit and chemistry in this group. I think it showed in that second half. Were we prefect? No. We all make mistakes, but they also played some pretty darn good football at times."

That assessment was fair. The Americans solidly outclassed Cuba and played inspired soccer in the final 45 against El Salvador.

But they also looked lost and overwhelmed at times, not at all like the side that beat Mexico comprehensively in a friendly last month.

US national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, in Nashville to observe the game, had his own thoughts on what he saw.

"I went in the locker room after the game and I gave them big compliments for what they did tonight, what they showed tonight," Klinsmann said. "[I told them] to leave this place with their heads up. There will be many moments to come in the future time, good moments and also similar moments to tonight. But I also said that it was not lost tonight, it was lost [in Saturday’s 2-0 defeat to] Canada."

Klinsmann had high praise for the passing, possession-oriented scheme Porter installed during his short tenure. The German will use at least a few members of this U-23 squad during qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, and the similarities between the coach's systems will ease the transition.

"[I liked] what you saw in terms of style, pace of the game, technical elements in the game," Klinsmann said. "You saw that tonight, against Cuba, against Mexico. That is very important for us to see that we are on the right path here in terms of style of play."

And the USA soccer program is indeed on the right path. But one look at Porter's face shows how rocky that trail can get.