Dogged USA keep American dream alive
The people of the USA may yet take to this soccer thing. High drama at Ellis Park will further aid that but now the American public must suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous refereeing. Team USA had displayed the true grit of John Wayne in hauling themselves back into this thrilling encounter in Johannesburg before being denied a winner by a decision that continued to mystify them into the aftermath of their 2-2 draw with Slovenia.
Recriminations against Malian referee Koman Coulibaly swiftly followed but Americans should hail their players' powers of recovery and be content when they consider that all had looked lost to the Slovenians. "Not many teams in this tournament could have done that - to come back to equalise or arguably win the game," Landon Donovan said, hailing the team's "American spirit" but pointedly expressing regret and some anger at the officiating. "We will have made the people back home proud," he said with rightful confidence, but there was a tinge of righteous indignation to his words.
Despite goals from Donovan and Michael Bradley pegging back a Slovenian lead that came through first-half strikes from Valter Birsa and Zlatan Ljubijankic, thoughts will keep returning to the goal that never was. Maurice Edu's poking home of a ball from Donovan in the 85th minute ought to have signified an American dream. The wake-up call came fast as the referee pointed for a foul, a decision that looked ever more questionable on TV replays as it seemed that three Slovenes had been committing fouls.
Coach Bob Bradley's information was much the same. "I've heard a few things," he said. "Most of what took place was the Slovenians. At least, that's one version." The coach, who retained his icy edge even when asked how it felt to have his son score the equaliser, said his emotions were thoroughly mixed about a point being gained by his players and a further two points being denied by a decision that Donovan said the referee "couldn't or wouldn't explain".
There the recriminations must rest, and Bradley barely expected to receive an explanation. "It's rare on a tough call that a referee will give you an answer," he said. "Sometimes, they give you an answer but that's not always the case. There are moments of frustration when situations go against you but that's the game sometimes."
The result leaves both teams capable of qualification for the next round as this tournament wakes from an early slumber to deliver heavy intrigue. Any talk of a new world order of football may not be premature after all. USA may yet be part of it but the former Yugoslavia has been asserting itself on the world stage. In an encounter just as thrilling as Germany's shock defeat in Port Elizabeth, Slovenia had looked likely to become the first team to qualify for the second round but were denied just as they began to look to the clock to save them.
On Sunday, they became initial group leaders after being granted their own piece of goalkeeping giftware by Algeria and here presented hugely troublesome opposition for a group of players determined to prove that their tournament did not centre around one hugely overhyped game in Rustenberg.
American fervour may have been high but this fixture did not seem to capture the imagination of the Johannesburg public until it neared a hugely engaging climax. Many a star-spangled banner littered the steeply-banked terraces and the USA fans have clearly seen the vuvuzela as a tool to express their national pride but, sadly, empty seats were again in evidence on a fresh Friday afternoon. Early signs of local support for USA soon evaporated into an appreciation of the mystery men from the edge of the Alps. It would return late on.
Bob Bradley's team prides itself on being, and needs to be, a sum greater than its parts. In the Slovenians, they came up against a team that perhaps better reflect such an equation: national pride is no less strong in the tiny Central European state. Having taken an early lead through Birsa's wonderfully-controlled strike of the Jabulani, Slovene grit was married with a no little footballing skill. And when under pressure from more fancied opponents at the end of the first half, the Slovenians responded with an incisive move.
Miso Brecko's hack clear when Donovan lurked as the goal gaped had an opposite effect on the two sides. Excitement got to the Americans as a harem-scarem set of miskicks allowed the Slovenians to advance through their midfield and place Ljubijankic in a position - also thanks to lax appreciation of colleagues' position by Oguchi Onyewu - to coolly slot home what looked like a clincher.
After the brio of Rustenberg, USA looked to be bearing worrying signs of their capitulations in Germany four years ago. Indeed, the opening Slovenian goal bore marked resemblance to Tomas Rosicky's screamer for Czech Republic in Gelsenkirchen. Yet perhaps Bradley's outfit possesses greater reserves than Bruce Arena's squad did four years ago. Donovan, so off-key back then, finished wonderfully when making a trademark burst from the right wing to supply drama to the second half and Bradley Jnr, a trojan worker in midfield all match, further nixed any remaining suggestions of nepotism when crashing home an equaliser that had looked certain to come. Slovene coach Matjaz Kek's emotions were, he said, left with "an aftertaste" as his "expectations were not met".
His team were not to be alone in that emotion. Edu was soon to be denied. Kek may have stated that "the referee has not had an impact on the final result" but millions will disagree. "Good luck, America," he said on his way out. On this occasion, the fortune was Slovenian.
MAN OF THE MATCH - Landon Donovan. Pre-match, Everton boss David Moyes, out in South Africa working for BBC radio, could be heard extolling the virtues of the man he took on loan during the English winter. And Donovan was the catalyst for American recovery, in the first half representing his team's most potent threat and then scoring the superb goal that began the revival.
USA VERDICT: The first half may have left them desolate, especially when Slovenia's second goal came against the run of play, but belief clearly runs through this team. Defensively haphazard in the first half but then full of ideas in the second, they were denied by the disallowed strike from Edu. A win against Algeria may well be enough to go through.
SLOVENIA VERDICT: They fully rode their luck but are perhaps entitled to feel that their efforts did not deserve defeat. Much neater on the ball than their opponents, they will rue 'keeper Samir Handanovic's seeming desire not to put his face in the way of Donovan's fierce strike. England beware: this team are capable of making the best of their chances.
STILL BORED? The early brickbats aimed at this competition now look hugely premature. Three excellent matches on Thursday were followed by Serbia's defeat of the Germans, while this may well have been the game of the tournament so far - and there have lately been a few contenders.