For most of the night, it appeared possible that Panama might actually book their trip to New Zealand for a home-and-home playoff for a World Cup berth. Mexico was struggling at Costa Rica, down 2-1 needing only a draw to advance. Honduras looked likely to clinch the third and final automatic spot.
And Luis Tejada's finish from close range in the 84th minute sent the entire Estadio Rommel Fernandez in Panama City into a frenzy.
All that Panama needed was in the final minutes plus stoppage time for the results to hold. It would not happen.
Graham Zusi, who scored the winner against Jamaica on Friday, equalized in the second minute of stoppage time before Aron Johannsson's first international goal for the United States sealed Panama's fate and eliminated the Canalmen from the 2014 World Cup. Mexico held on to the fourth spot and the playoff spot against New Zealand despite their 2-1 loss in Costa Rica and Honduras will make their second straight World Cup after tying Jamaica 2-2.
There will be a time where most US fans will remember this comeback fondly, and the performance of a makeshift midfield that for stretches dominated the possession. Veterans like Kyle Beckerman, Sacha Kljestan and Mix Diskerud who certainly made cases for spots in Brazil with their play in the midfield. Jozy Altidore, wearing the captain's armband, putting in a tremendous shift up front while utility man Brad Davis proved key off the bench on the left flank.
There will be a time to reflect as to how deep and talented this US team is and how Jurgen Klinsmann was able to throw together a patchwork midfield and substitute his way to wins in games that in the grand scheme of things didn't matter to his side as far as the standings go. But they mattered to the players on the field and I respect their efforts today and in time I will remember this win fondly.
But that time is not now for some of us.
Today, I can only feel for a Panama side that was clearly gutted as the Americans leveled and went ahead at the death. Gutted for players like Jaime Penedo, Blas Perez, Luis Tejada and so many others who battled all year for a chance to make it to their countries first World Cup. And I wanted it for them too. Not just because of the USA-Mexico soccer rivalry, but because Panama has largely been the better side this year. Runners up at the Gold Cup and another heartbreaking late loss at Azteca thanks to Raul Fernandez's winning bicycle kick.
Panama put it all on the line this year, not just in qualifying but in the Gold Cup as well, and both times came within a game of something special. And I find it cruel that the soccer gods, just minutes away from advancing closer to their dream of a World Cup, tore it away from them.
I, like many of you, openly started rooting for Panama's qualification pretty much after Gabriel Torres' opener in the 1st half and subsequent opener for Costa Rica through Bryan Ruiz. Twitter erupted with American fans openly rooting against their own team with "Sink ElTriTanic" my personal favorite. And the TBM live thread and other social media sites were losing their collective minds as the unthinkable might occur. Mexico outright failing to qualify for the World Cup by finishing 5th in The Hex.
Alas, two late goals and classy celebrations from Zusi and the Iceman (credit to him for realizing the moment there) won't be enough to console Panama right now. I feel like we owe the whole country an apology right now. I want to grab a seat at the bar next to some Panamanians and buy them a round.
And Mexico, you have ended the debate as to who is the best team in CONCACAF for at least the rest of the decade. El Tri is at best a distant second with Costa Rica and Honduras and I'd be willing to argue that they're still fifth best behind Panama still, regardless of the past weeks results. You should consider yourself lucky to even be going to Brazil because you absolutely don't deserve to go in place of a Panamanian team that actually wants to be there.
I can't fault Zusi, Johannsson and the rest of the US team for doing their job and going out and winning the game tonight. To the guys on the field, this game was just as important for their World Cup hopes as Panama's. But I still can't help but feel for a team that undeservedly just got bounced from the World Cup. I can't help but feel gutted for a team that went from euphoria to distraught in a matter of seconds.
Sorry, Panama. Go New Zealand.