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WASHINGTON - Luis Tejada scored a 90th-mintute goal and then converted the clinching penalty in a shootout to lift Panama over El Salvador and send it to the Gold cup semifinals for the first time since 2005.
Luis Tejada scored in a goalmouth scramble to equalize 1-1 with only seconds remaining in regulation after Rodolfo Zelaya had put El Salvador ahead with a penalty in the 78th minute.
Panama prevailed 5-3 in the shootout, returning to the final four for the first time since it reached the Gold Cup title game before losing to the United States on penalties.
"In terms of the game today, the two teams put on a great effort, but I think Panama gave just a little more and that is why we are able to advance to the semifinals," manager Julio Dely Valdes said.
It will face the Americans in the semifinals Wednesday night in Houston in a rematch of their group encounter, won by "Los Canaleros" 2-1.
"So, we will face USA once again, but I think this time is going to be very different from the match we played in the previous stage; it will be very complicated," Dely Valdes said.
El Salvador was seeking its first trip to the semifinals and appeared to have accomplished the feat when Zelaya converted his penalty.
It was Zelaya's second penalty attempt in the match, after being denied in the first half by Panamanian keeper Jaime Penedo.
Zelaya earned the penalty after sprinting into the area and being tripped by Ramon Torres at the top of the box.
After being thwarted by Penedo with a low shot in the 23rd minute, Zelaya blasted this attempt high, sending the partisan sellout crowd of 45,423 into delirium.
But Tejada equalized in the 90th minute as Panama surged forward. Blas Perez sent a hard cross from the right side that goalkeeper Miguel Montes was able to punch upward but not control. It fell at the back post where Tejada managed to get a head to it.
Montes caught the ball but apparently inside the line, sparking a vigorous protest from El Salvador and a shower of debris from the crowd.
"There is no doubt that this has been a game with many decisive moments, very difficult to digest," El Salvador manager Ruben Israel said. "Aside from the discussion of the ball going in or not, there was a very bad decision from the referee. I have been told from looking at the replay on television that the ball did not go in.
"Unfortunately we owe this elimination to a human error, because that is the way soccer is and that is how the referees are. They can make mistakes the same way in which we [the coaches] make mistakes."
Both teams played the extra periods with 10 men after Panama's Blas Perez and El Salvador's Luis Anaya were sent off during the intermission after getting into a scuffle.
Panama had the best chances of the extra period when Montes blocked Felipe Baloy's header in the 110th minute and Osael Romero did the same at the right post to Roman Torres' side volley a minute later.
But El Salvador also had its moment with only seconds left when Steve Purdy settled a cross from Arturo Alvarez near the top of the six, but his attempt to find an opening was finished with a shot by Romero that was blocked in front.
The victory Panama's eighth in the past 10 meetings against El Salvador dating back to 2004. The match also was the first between the two Central American rivals in the Gold Cup.
El Salvador had the best chance of the first half when Costa Rican referee Walter Quesada awarded a penalty for Luis Henriquez bumping into the back of Rudis Corrales as a ball sailed over both of their heads.
Zelaya, who had three of El Salvador's seven goals in the Gold Cup coming into the match, sent his attempt low left, where Penedo dived and blocked the shot with his right hand.
"I missed the first penalty, but luckily I had the support of my teammates and coaches and I could score the second penalty," Zelaya said. "We have nothing to regret. We leave happy because of the work we have all done, and grateful of our fans in Washington, D.C., who always support us when we come."
El Salvador also tested Penedo from distance in the 13th when Dennis Alas ran on to an attempted clearance from 30 meters and struck a swerving right-footed drive that the Panamanian keeper had to stretch to his left to grab.
On a warm, humid day, play was ragged on both sides with errant passes and players frequently falling to draw foul calls from Quesada.
Panama outshot El Salvador 11-4 in the first half alone, but aside from a handful of opportunities, both teams were mostly high and wide.
Panama had more of the play in the second half with its best chance coming in the 68th minute when Armando Cooper's cross into the area was knocked away and fell to Blas Perez at the edge of the six, but his shot was blocked by a sliding Victor Turcios.
Four minutes after Zelaya's successful penalty, Salvadoran keeper Miguel Montes preserved the lead by tipping Luis Tejada's free kick from 24 meters over the bar.