El Salvador learns hard lesson in Gold Cup
By Michael Lewis

WASHINGTON -- For El Salvador, the Gold Cup was a learning experience, with some hard lessons learned from two Central American rivals.

One vital lesson was to never stop playing.

Panama managed to transform potential losses into positive results with late, dramatic equalizing goals: one against Canada in the group stage, and another against the Salvadorans that led to penalties and a quarterfinal victory.

The Salvadorans, on the other hand, surrendered two late goals and it cost them both times -- a 1-1 draw with Costa Rica in the group stage, and elimination by the Panamanians in the quarterfinals.

"It shows the kind of team that Panama is," El Salvador midfielder Arturo Alvarez said. "Obviously, they play until the ref blows the whistle. It's worked for them in the last two games. That's something that we've got to look at and make sure that we do as well."

El Salvador will have an opportunity to take those lessons forward during World Cup qualifying in September.

Everything is relative. El Salvador reached the quarterfinals for the first time since 2003 and for only the third time in seven appearances. So, the Central Americans felt they had a successful run.

"We leave with our heads tall because of the great job we have done in the Gold Cup," said striker Rodolfo Zelaya, who finished with four goals. "We are finally getting the coach's idea and I think we displayed good soccer. We have nothing to regret. We leave happy because of the work we have all done."

Coach Ruben Israel felt "Los Cuscatlecos" made some small, but key steps.

"This has been a very important appearance by El Salvador at an international level, competing against important teams," he said. "We have played great matches, although it feels like we could have gone a little further."

The Salvadorans started the competition being routed by Mexico in their opening match 5-0. They rebounded with that draw against Costa Rica and clinched a quarterfinal spot with an 6-1 triumph over Cuba.

"Most teams would give up, but we came in and showed a lot of heart against Costa Rica," Alvarez said. "We did what we had to do against Cuba. So, that puts us through. Now coming here, it wasn't an easy game, but we showed what we were made of. Unfortunately, PKs didn't go our way."

The Panamanians converted all five of their attempts. El Salvador went three out of four as goalkeeper Jaime Penedo denied Dennis Alas.

"It was really close," Alvarez said. "Unfortunately, PKs can go either way. It wasn't on our side this time. We played a good game. We fought the whole time. We never let down. Obviously that last-minute goal of the 90 minutes hurt us. Either way, we showed good character and we just got to build on it."

Alvarez, who plays for Real Salt Lake in Major League Soccer, was disappointed the partisan, sellout crowd of 45,423 did not leave Washington's Robert F. Kennedy Stadium celebrating.

"Having a big Salvadoran community here in D.C. it just shows how passionate we are about soccer," he said. "Unfortunately, we couldn't give them a good result. We were looking forward to qualifying to the semifinals. But that's the way soccer goes. You've got to keep building on it, make sure we focus on the qualifiers."