JOHANNESBURG – Finally, some controversy. Finally, some drama. Finally, a knock-down, drag-out brawl of a World Cup game.
All it took Friday afternoon to bring South Africa 2010 bursting to life was an American team with a never-say-die attitude and a referee from Mali who saw something no one else did.
The end result was 2-2 tie between the U.S. and Slovenia in a match that the American players and coaches forever will argue should have ended 3-2 in their favor.
Even Slovenia’s coach, Matjaz Kek, seemed to indicate as much. “Good luck, America,” Kek said as he left the postgame interview room at Ellis Park in Johannesburg
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The controversy came late in the game.
Four minutes from the end of the pulsating encounter, with a fired-up U.S. team having come from two goals down to tie the score, Maurice Edu sprinted through a scrum of players to redirect Landon Donovan’s free kick into the back of the Slovenian net.
Coming just four minutes after Michael Bradley had saved the day and possibly his father’s job as U.S. coach by tying the game, the apparent goal seemed perfectly legitimate.
But as Edu was turning away to celebrate, referee Koman Coulibaly waived it off. He had seen a foul, apparently, even though no infraction was obvious apart from the usual holding and grabbing, and the goal was disallowed.
The resulting argument engulfed everything that had come before.
“I don’t know how they stole that last goal from us,” a clearly heated Donovan said as he left the field. “I’m not sure what the call was. He (Coulibaly) wouldn’t tell us.”
Later, Donovan, who launched the comeback with a blistering goal of his own three minutes into the second half, had calmed down a bit but was still bemused by the call.
“I’m assuming it was a foul somewhere,” he said. “Obviously, it couldn’t have been offside. We asked the ref many times who it was on or what the foul was and he wouldn’t or couldn’t explain it.
“I don’t know what to think of the call because I didn’t see any foul anywhere. I just saw a normal free kick and a goal.”
Had the goal been allowed and had the U.S. team held onto the lead, it would have earned three points and would have been virtually assured of a place in the next round.
But the tie, combined with England’s 0-0 tie with Algeria on Friday night, leaves first and second place in the group up for grabs. All four teams are still in the hunt.
“We have no choice but to win if we want to advance,” Donovan said of Wednesday afternoon’s game with Algeria in Pretoria.
The United States will have to start better than it did Friday. By halftime it was trailing by two goals, having yielded one to Valter Birsa on a long-range shot in the 13th minute and another to Zlatan Ljubijanik three minutes before the half ended when he beat the offside trap and steered the ball past goalkeeper Tim Howard.
At that point, the Americans were on the verge of elimination. With a win, Slovenia would have clinched a place in the final 16 and England would logically have been favored to take the other spot.
Angry words were spoken in the American locker room. Changes were made in the lineup. A far more motivated team emerged from the tunnel for the second 45 minutes.
No one was more fired up than Donovan, and he changed the match in the 48th minute. Taking a pass down the right flank from Steve Cherundolo, he left defender Marko Suler behind, homed in on goal and then fired the ball up and over goalkeeper Samir Handanovic to make it 2-1.
“I decided to aim at his head, and I don’t think he wanted to get hit,” Donovan said of Handanovic, who flinched and turned away as the close-range shot came in.
With spirits lifted, the U.S. continued to attack. For a while it seemed as if Slovenia could withstand the pressure, but with eight minutes remaining it cracked. A Donovan free kick, a header by Jozy Altidore and a finish by Bradley made it 2-2 and set up the dramatic finale.
“My guess is there are not many teams in this tournament that could have done what we did, and arguably have won the game,” Donovan said. “That is what the American spirit is about and I’m sure people back home are proud of that.”
The final word belongs to Bob Bradley, the U.S. coach, because Coulibaly had nothing to say.
“At the end of the day,” Bradley said, “the tie keeps us alive, and that’s the most important thing.”