Last night, the United States men's national team played their final World Cup qualifier against Panama. Since the U.S. team qualified for the World Cup last month with a 2-0 victory over Mexico, the game against Panama was irrelevant for the USMNT — but it meant the world to Panama and Mexico.
A Mexican win or tie against Costa Rica would send them to a two-match playoff against New Zealand next month for one of the final spots in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. However a Mexican loss and a Panama win over the U.S. would send Panama to the playoff against the Kiwis. Mexico hasn't failed to qualify for a World Cup since 1982. Panama has never qualified for a World Cup.
Since the U.S. and Costa Rica had already qualified for the World Cup, last night's game was basically a glorified scrimmage for the USMNT, which is why their starting lineup against Panama consisted primarily of reserves with the exception of Jozy Altidore.
Both matches stayed tied 1-1 until nearly halfway through the second half when Costa Rica shocked the constantly disappointing El Tri squad with a beautiful strike in the 64th minute.
With Costa Rica taking a 2-1 lead over Mexico, it opened the door for Panama to leap frog Mexico on the CONCACAF standings — only if they could just find a way to break the 1-1 tie with the U.S.
In the 83rd minute they did.
The goal sent the Panamanian crowd into instant pandemonium. They were eight minutes away from a playoff against New Zealand for their first World Cup berth in the country's history.
Panama's bags were packed for New Zealand. Dreams of their first World Cup berth were dancing in their heads. And then the United States decided to crush their dreams in dramatic fashion.
Graham Zusi's header in the second minute of extra time found the back of the net and crushed Panama, while simultaneously saving Mexico — the United States' biggest rival. To say that Mexico was excited would be the understatement of the decade.
Mexico's excitement could only be rivaled by Panama's disappointment. Mexico is a superiorly talented team from a traditional soccer country who has failed to live up to expectations. Panama was an overachiever on the brink of the greatest moment in the history of their soccer program. It's impossible to not feel for the Panamanians who fell just short. The images of U.S. players consoling their opponents after the match will be one of the lasting images of World Cup qualifying.
Last night, the United States' new-found inability to lose inadvertently helped their bitter rivals. This tweet from the U.S. Soccer official twitter account says it all...