JOHANNESBURG – Go ahead and whine about the U.S. goal that wasn’t. The call certainly seemed questionable and, if nothing else, the Americans deserved an explanation of exactly why their game-winner at the World Cup was waved off.
But when you start out tentative (again), fall behind early (again) and don’t capitalize on your chances (again), you lose your right to complain. The 2-2 draw with Slovenia on Friday didn’t come down to just one play, no matter how loudly the Americans and their fans are yelling.
Not to mention that all this moaning and groaning overshadows an impressive comeback, the kind of gutty rally the United States can build off for Wednesday’s critical game against Algeria, which drew with England, 0-0, Friday night.
“I’m a little gutted, to be honest,” said Landon Donovan, whose brilliance went far beyond his canon of a shot that got the Americans back in the game. “I don’t know how they stole that last goal from us.”
Those, however, are the breaks of any game. There are good calls and bad calls in every game, in every sport, and they generally balance out by the time a player calls it a career.
The Americans have every right to be bitter about what looked like a sure thing by Maurice Edu off Donovan’s free kick in the 86th minute. There was enough pushing and bumping in front of the goal to make the NASCAR crowd proud, and Michael Bradley could probably use a few bandages after the way he was manhandled.
Edu managed to work his way free and poke in a close-range shot, setting off raucous celebrations on the U.S. sideline. A victory would have put the Americans in commanding position to advance to the next round.
But referee Koman Coulibaly had blown his whistle as the ball was going into the net. It was as if Edu’s foot had never even touched the ball.
“Sheer excitement,” Edu said, “to real disappointment.”
The U.S. players quickly swarmed Coulibaly, demanding an explanation. But Coulibaly could not – or would not – explain his call.
After the game, all the talk was of the phantom goal. Back home, ESPN’s announcers did little to hide their outrage. The only thing U.S. sports fans like more than a controversy is a team wearing the red, white and blue, and the combination is sure to get even the most casual of observers talking.
Which is fine. But it ignores the big picture.
The United States came in favored after holding mighty England to a draw last weekend, and the Americans should have come out enthused, energetic and ready to run right over little Slovenia. Instead, they looked as unsure as World Cup rookies. The defense was patchy and there were several very obvious instances of miscommunication.
U.S. coach Bob Bradley defended his team, saying there’s a feeling-out process in a tactical game like this. But Slovenia sure managed to get things figured out in a hurry, scoring in the 13th minute when Valter Birsa may as well have had the U.S. half of the field to himself.
The Americans were so busy bemoaning Donovan’s miss on a gimme in the 41st minute they failed to shut down a Slovenian counterattack, leaving Tim Howard to face a charging Zlatan Ljubijankic all by himself. Howard’s as good a goalkeeper as there is, but the goal is a gaping target on a one-on-one.
Falling behind has become a disturbing pattern for the Americans. They did it against England. Did it in six of their 10 final-round qualifying games, too. More often than not, they’ve worked themselves back into the game. They tied against England, and finished those qualifiers with three wins and two draws.
“My guess is not many teams in the tournament could do what we did,” Donovan said. “That is what the American spirit is all about.”
He’s right, and the Americans should be thrilled with their draw. As Howard pointed out, there are some teams – good teams – that are all but out of it already, and the United States would have joined them if not for the second-half goals by Donovan and Michael Bradley. The attacking style the Americans played in the second half would hold up against just about anybody in this tournament.
Dance on the edge too often, however, and eventually you’re going to fall off.
“We seem to play better when we’re behind,” Howard said. “That’s got to change.”
Next week’s game against Algeria would be a good place to start. Otherwise, the Americans can whine all they want about the goal that wasn’t from the comfort of their couches back home.