By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
March 27: The American U-23 national team versus El Salvador, in the final game of the 2012 London Olympics qualifiers' group stage. Only a win would keep Team USA's hopes alive.
The first time Shea got the ball, he received a bouncing throw-in on the left side, deep in El Salvador's half. As he felt pressure from a defender, he volleyed the ball over the Salvadoran's head, then took one touch to control the ball when it returned to earth.
As the ball descended, the defender recovered to force Shea out of bounds. That's when Shea, facing the sideline, cut a full 180 degrees inside before muscling the defender to the turf. Two more Salvadorans closed on Shea. They never had a chance.
With his right foot, he sliced the ball 90 degrees toward the end line, turned and accelerated away, leaving them behind. He looked up and saw an American jersey streaking toward the net and crossed a perfect ball to his teammate, who volleyed the ball into the roof of the net. Fifty-nine seconds into the match and Shea had Team USA up 1-0. It looked unfair.
But four minutes into extra time, it was still close, 3-2, with the Americans winning and waiting for the clock to die. Shea got the ball on the left sideline in America's half, about 50 yards from his own goal. He tried to play a pass forward to a teammate, to keep the ball on American feet until the whistle blew, but it rolled straight to a Salvadoran, who quickly controlled the ball before rolling a pass back upfield. There was a scramble for the ball, then it squirted out in the middle of the field to a Salvadoran still about 50 yards from goal. The clock read 94:06.
The Salvadoran dribbled forward and diagonally to the left, almost away from Team USA's goal, directly toward three waiting American defenders. At 94:10, just as the defenders broke toward him, the Salvadoran fired a desperate shot, well struck but poorly placed, that skimmed inches off the grass right toward the American goalkeeper, who had already crouched and begun to dive to the near post.
At 94:11, a yard before the ball got to the outstretched and waiting goalkeeper, the ball bounced, slightly changing its trajectory, then hit the keeper's hands. It looked like an easy save, but then the ball kept going, this time up and up, eight, nine feet in the air, above the crossbar of the goal, then it hung and fell back to earth, bounced just inside the goal line, and at 94:13, skipped into the back of the net.
"What did you think when that happened?"
"I don't know," Shea would say later, at the sub shop. "I didn't think it was real."
It's at this point that the numb panic sets in, when the game is over and the brain shuts off, but the limbs still work. The American players knew it was over, their parents in the stands knew it was over, their head coach screaming "Get the ball! Get the ball!" knew it was over, and the Salvadorans who just 15 seconds earlier thought it was over knew it was over.
Finally the ref blew his whistle, two short ones followed by a long one, and that's when the brain turned back on and the limbs shut off, when the American players collapsed in tears and racked sobs as the Salvadoran substitutes stormed the field, skipping around the littered bodies.
It was over. Team USA would not be going to the Olympics, ousted on their own field by a nation with as many people as the state of Maryland.
The media started to point fingers. Some pointed to the goalkeeper. Many pointed to Shea. Why didn't he just clear the ball down the field? Why'd he have to turn it over? If Shea simply hoofed the ball out of his own half, or out of play, the ref likely would've ended the game.
The reality is tougher to swallow. Because even though it aligns with everything we know about the sport in our country, it goes against everything we're taught to feel about our country. The reality is, a team that deserved to make the Olympics would've made it out of the round regardless of a fluke loss to El Salvador, because a team that deserved to make the Olympics wouldn't have lost to Canada 2-0 in the game before. After 14 years and $50 million, the Americans just weren't good enough.
Their hopes had ended, in some ways, in Bradenton.
The residency program's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. By identifying and grouping the best 35 young players together, the team is improving as a core, but that core invariably hits a ceiling. Other countries' top players go train with their countries' best pro teams — a British phenom with Manchester United, a Spanish one with Real Madrid. Properly seasoned, they become starters on their leagues' best teams by the time they're 18 or 19. The world's current top player, Lionel Messi, won the World Player of the Year award at 21.
But American players aren't playing against anyone better. Recent changes could help remedy this: The academy season has been lengthened, and top players will now be set up with MLS teams. But still, Team USA has never won a major international tournament. More telling: The United States has never even produced a George Best. Best, a Northern Ireland player, was a fluke, an outlier, born and raised in what might be a worse soccer country than the United States. He never played in a World Cup, but because of his youth in the Manchester United academy, he developed into one of the best soccer players of all time. The United States, a country of more than 300 million people, has yet to even accidentally create a single international star.