The United States may not be the most talented team in the World Cup, but it is turning out to be the most exciting. After gifting a thoroughly talented and composed Slovenian team a two-goal lead at the half, the Yanks staged a three-goal comeback—only two of which counted— to reach a 2-2 draw and keep their hopes of advancing into the knockout round alive.
As it did against England last week, the U.S. once again fell behind early when Valter Birsa took a pass in the middle of three U.S. defenders and, with acres of space to play in, crashed a left-footed bomb past a disbelieving Tim Howard in the 13th minute. Once again, the American defense looked shaky in the opening minutes and paid a price for slack marking. The Americans then spent the next 20 minutes trying to send long balls over the Slovenian defense, with little to show for it. Michael Bradley skyed one over the bar, and Francisco Torres, getting a starting role, hit a free kick that Slovenian goalie Samir Handanovic parried away. In the 42d minute Slovenia seemed to have put the game away when Zlatan Ljubijankic sprung the U.S. offside trap and fired low under Howard’s arm. Slovenia had three shots at the U.S. goal in the first half; two of them went in.
Given how calmly the Slovenians had played in the first 45 minutes, this looked like a done deal. U.S. coach Bob Bradley inserted Maurice Edu and Benny Feilhaber to start the second half in place of Torres and the ineffectual Robbie Findley, but it was Landon Donovan who initiated the clawback. Slovenian defender Andraz Kirm misplayed a ball on the U.S. right flank, and Donovan pounced on it. He closed in on Handanovic at a wide angle but hit a blast into the roof of the net—top shelf as they say in the NHL. It was a shot Donovan’s father, a Canadian and a hockey player, could well appreciate.
The goal brought the crowd to life, particularly the locals, who were soon working their vuvuzelas rhythmically in the U.S. cause. To see a pro-American crowd in a foreign venue is a bit of an unexpected experience, but the South Africans were loving it. Although the U.S. maintained the pressure on Slovenia, the minutes were slipping away. Bradley rolled the dice for the last time in the 80th minute, taking out central defender Oguchi Onyewu and replacing him with forward Herculez Gomez. But it would be Bradley’s son Michael, the central U.S. midfielder, who would provide the tying goal, collecting a headed pass from Jozy Altidore to punch one past Handanovic.
Then the U.S. won the game—momentarily. Maurice Edu whacked in Donovan’s fiercely taken free kick, but Mali referee Koman Coulibaly whistled for a foul that no one else in the stadium seems to have witnessed. It was infuriating to the Americans—Coulibaly wouldn’t explain the call, but that’s not unusual in FIFA’s mystery world of referees. “They stole a goal from us,” said Donovan, summing up the team’s frustration.
But he also knew the U.S. pulled off a bit of a heist of its own. “I am proud of our guys, I don’t know that there are many teams that would have responded in that way to going two goals down,” said Donovan, who was also voted the man of the match. “We said (at half-time) if we don’t believe we can do it, then let’s not go back out. We can’t keep putting ourselves in holes like that. We have one more chance against Algeria and we are still alive.”
The outcome of the game between England and Algeria will factor heavily in the Americans’ chances to advance. Slovenia got a precious point, which gives them four points, with England left to play. “We made such dumb mistakes in the second half. It was a really tough match, and my team showed they were of high quality,” said Slovenia coach Matjaz Kek. The Americans are going to have to beat Algeria in their final group game to assure themselves of advancing. They better not leave this one for late.