The U.S. men's national soccer team had momentum, the homefield advantage and history on its side heading into Saturday night's match against Panama at the CONCACAF Gold Cup Tournament.
Then it all disappeared.
And now the Americans, after a sluggish early effort, are desperate.
Panama made a pair of first-half goals stand up, prevailing 2-1 before 27,731 fans at Raymond James Stadium and suddenly jeopardizing America's chances of advancing to the Gold Cup quarterfinals.
When it ended, some Panama players jumped in each other's arms in celebration. A few more dropped to the turf in tearful exhaustion.
"On the night, we were not good enough,'' U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "We were not sharp enough in the areas that mattered. The road to move through this tournament is now a little different.''
The U.S., which has won the Gold Cup four times and was hoping to rest its front-line players against Guadeloupe, now faces a must-win situation on Tuesday night in Kansas City, Mo. The Gold Cup champion earns an automatic bid to the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil, one year before the FIFA World Cup is contested in that nation.
In Saturday night's first game, Canada scored a 1-0 victory against Guadeloupe, which played a man down through most of the match.
After falling behind 2-0 in the first half, the U.S. made it interesting with a brilliant goal by Clarence Goodson in the 68th minute. Michael Bradley leaped for a header in the box off a free kick by Landon Donovan, then Goodson finished with a header of his own, beating Panama goalie Jaime Penedo to the near post.
But the U.S. failed to capitalize on its chances in the game's frantic final minutes. The best opportunity came in the 80th minute, when Jozy Altidor slammed a sharp cross into the box, but Chris Wondolowski, in front of the net and playing it off the ground, popped it up over the goal.
In the 89th minute, with the U.S. playing free-flowing one-touch soccer, Bradley got a pass in full stride, but his shot sailed just wide right of the goal mouth.
How significant was the defeat?
The U.S. had never lost a Gold Cup match in the pre-quarterfinal Group stage, winning 24 and tying two.
The U.S. had never lost against Panama — period — going 6-0-2.
"I think we're upset with how we started the game,'' Donovan said. "The fortunate thing is we're not in the knockout stages, so we've got to regroup. We were a little unlucky, not to score (more in the second half). But we just can't start games like that.''
Panama gained an early advantage in the 19th minute. Nelson Brahona's free kick caromed off the U.S. wall back to Gabriel Gomez, who sent a long cross to Armando Cooper. His point blank shot was deflected by the right hand of U.S. goalie Tim Howard, but the rebound was put home by an onrushing Luis Tejada.
The Americans fell behind 2-0 on a penalty kick by Panama's Gomez, prompted by a foul on U.S. defender Tim Ream, who took down Blast. Howard guessed right on the shot, diving to his right, but Gomez booted it strong and high, making it impossible for Howard to stop.
"I'm absolutely happy because we made history tonight,'' Panama coach Julio Dely Valdes said.
Now the Americans must rebound with a stronger performance against Guadeloupe — or their Gold Cup chances will be history.