The United States recovered from a 2-0 deficit at half-time to draw 2-2 with group leaders Slovenia. Despite a result which potentially salvages their hopes of reaching the Round of 16 the United States will have every reason to bemoan the result as they were incorrectly denied a late winner by Malian referee Koman Coulibaly.
The 22nd match of this summer’s World Cup got off to a heated start. Clint Dempsey and Ljubjankic challenged for a header in the centre of the pitch just seconds after the referee’s whistle. Fulham’s Dempsey caught the Slovenian striker with his elbow and provoked an furious reaction Slovenia’s players.
The United States failed to mount a sustained attacking threat against England but a terrific pass from Michael Bradley showed a new ambition from the United States. Bradley found Robbie Findley in space on the left, who looked up in search of a target for his cross. Jozy Altidore was unmarked in the middle but Findley’s cross was blocked by the Slovenian right-back.
Auxerre’s Valter Birsa launched a brilliant cross towards Milivoje Novakovic who moved in front of defender Jay DeMerit. Novakovic could not make the crucial touch as the game began to open up.
Birsa had impressed in the World Cup thus far and opened the scoring with a terrific goal from outside the area. His left footed, curling effort beat Tim Howard, who appeared to be unsighted by his defenders. It was a breathtaking goal and Slovenia appeared to be good value for their early advantage.
Landon Donovan threatened to bring the United States back into this game. His quick feet were causing the Slovenian central defence problems but he was unable to find a teammate when he needed to.
Donovan was involved against just minutes later as he sent a lofted cross towards the far post. Dempsey rose to head goalwards but unfortunately for the Fulham midfielder the ball just bounced off the top of his crown.
Jose Francisco Torres, who was brought into the starting line-up in place of the more defensive Ricardo Clark, whipped a fierce free kick in from the right. Handandovic , whose club form had seen him become an object of interest for Bayern München , palmed the shot away at full stretch. The resulting corner brought a chance for Jay DeMerit who attacked the ball well but saw his header land wide of the target.
Robbie Findley was constantly finding himself in dangerous positions but had yet to take advantage of his unrivalled pace. Findley played a terrible pass towards Jozy Altidore around the penalty spot where a chipped pass towards Donovan or Dempsey at the back post would have been the better option. From the corner, the ball struck Robbie Findley in the face and he was wrongly awarded a yellow card. The card ruling him out of the United States’ final group match with Algeria.
The United States nearly had an equaliser in the 39th minute. Clint Dempsey dribbled deep into the Slovenian penalty before rolling a pass across goal. Miso Brecko swiftly cleared the ball off the line as Donovan prepared to apply the easiest of finishes.
Slovenia scored a second goal just moments later against the run of play. USA caught on the break. Zlatan Ljubijankic taking advantage of terrible positioning by Oguchi Onyewu to beat the offside trap and slot the ball under Tim Howard, who had perhaps tried to close down the Gent striker too quickly.
Slovenia were on the threshold of a truly remarkable achievement. They are the fifth-smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup and just forty-five minutes stood between them and a place in the last sixteen.
Bob Bradley wasted no time in changing his side. Benny Feilhaber and Maurice Edu were introduced at half-time in place of Francisco Torres and Robbie Findley respectively.
The United States were boosted immediately almost immediately. Record goalscorer Landon Donovan beat the offside trap and approached the goal from the byline, he thought about laying it off before lashing it high just inside the far post with Samir Handandovic unable to react.
The United States got a free kick minutes later as the vocal US support in Ellis Park sparked to life. Donovan’s delivery was perfect once again. Dempsey missed his header and Oguchi Onyewu, hungry to reprieve himself for his earlier mistake, slid towards the ball but it proved to be just out of his reach.
The match was poised, as the cliché goes, on a knife-edge.
The Americans would need to maintain their intensity if they were to mount a successful comeback. It was surprising to see the USMNT players increasingly look to wards Tim Howard to punt the ball aimlessly down the field as their predominant form of creating chances.
The defensive set-up of Slovenia threatened to confound the United States. They were awarded a free-kick following a handball by substitute Maurice Edu. Birsa, whose delivery had been so effective in the first half, continued to offer challenges for the Tim Howard and the American defence to deal with.
The Americans’ play did not seem urgent enough considering the situation they were in. A rare move of short passing saw Benny Feilhaber in possession just outside the Slovenian penalty area. His weak shot dribbled wide with just 25 minutes to go.
Marko Suler was fortunate not to be on the receiving end of a red card after he grappled Jozy Altidore to the ground as the Hull City striker chased down a Landon Donovan pass just outside the penalty area. Altidore appeared to be through on goal and the ever feisty Donovan was infumed by the decision.
Slovenia had begun to lose their discipline, perhaps burdened by a sense of anxiety as they drew ever nearer to the Round of 16.
The United States’ lack of urgency was proving to be their undoing. They needed to find Dempsey and Donovan to increase the tempo and really threaten Slovenia.
However, the Americans would find an equaliser with just seven minutes remaining of normal time. Landon Donovan fired a searching long ball towards the penalty area. The imposing frame of Jozy Altidore rose above Brecko to head into the path of Michael Bradley’s late run into the box. The Borussia Mönchengladbach midfielder slid forward and poked the ball into the goal with Handandovic in no position to save it. Bradley’s goal sparked joyous scenes from the thousands of American fans in attendance at Ellis Park and an even more ecstatic celebration from his father, the coach, Bob Bradley.
The goal gave rise to an interesting dynamic. Would the United States continue to search for an unlikely winning goal, would Slovenia collapse under the pressure?
Perhaps the most contentious refereeing decision yet seen at this World Cup arrived in the 88th minute. Altidore was awarded a free kick after being held back by Jokic.. Donovan stepped forward purposefully to take. The MLS star delivered another excellent free-kick across the six-yard box. Maurice Edu was the first to react and prodded into the unguarded left of the net. Referee Koman Coulibaly, who was erratic throughout, disallowed the goal and awarded a free kick to a grateful Slovenia. Replays failed to show any wrongdoing on the part of the United States’ players and perhaps even suggested that a penalty should have been awarded as Brecko and Jovic wrestled Altidore and Bradley.
Nevertheless, the United States’ recovery gives them 2 points and presents them with a terrific chance to qualify for the next round against Algeria. Slovenia will rue allowing the United States to come back but will also be thankful that Malian referee wrongly disallowed Edu’s goal. Matjaz Kek’s side still sit atop Group C at least until England play the Algerians in Cape Town this evening.