JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – The United States maintained its hopes of advancing to the next round of the soccer World Cup Friday when it tied 2-2 against Slovenia in a hotly fought match at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park stadium.
The most controversial move was the referee's decision to disallow a third U.S. goal for reasons that have not been fully explained.
The draw leaves Slovenia temporarily at the top of Group C with four points while the U.S. is second with two points. Later today England will face Algeria in Cape Town. This leaves the U.S. in a rather favorable position as it will face Algeria, supposedly the weakest team in the group, in Pretoria on Wednesday.
The game was one of two halves with Slovenia’s fast passing game leading to a two-goal lead at halftime. In the second half, the U.S.’s relentless pressure finally paid off, and the U.S. capitalized on Slovenia’s defensive lapses to level the match 10 minutes before the end.
“My guess is that there are not many teams in this tournament that could have done what we did,” said Landon Donovan, who scored the first U.S. goal. “And that’s what the American spirit is about.”
The U.S. makes a nasty habit of conceding goals early and did so again Friday as Slovenia midfielder Valter Birsa’s shot passed over U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard’s head before dipping into the net in the 13th minute. The U.S. reacted by creating several scoring chances later in the half but did not capitalize on them. Then, on a roundly executed counterattack just before halftime, Slovenia scored again on forward Zlatan Ljubijankic’s clinical finish.
U.S. coach Bob Bradley’s two substitutions at halftime seemed to energize the U.S. squad, and just three minutes in Donovan scored a deft goal to make it 2-1. Bradley’s own son, defensive midfielder Michael, completed the remarkable comeback with a powerful shot into the top of the net.
The U.S. could even have escaped with a victory, but referee Koman Coulibaly of Mali disallowed an American goal in the dying minutes under uncertain circumstances. The questionable call left many American fans wondering what the U.S. had done against Mali.
The tie is a good result for Slovenia against a better-ranked opponent, but the evolution of the score left Slovenia’s coach Matjaz Kek deeply disappointed.
“I am really proud of my squad, but there is some aftertaste of expectations not having been met,” he said.
In demographic terms, this Group C matchup had all the makings of a David vs. Goliath encounter. In the absence of China and India, the U.S. is the most populous nation at this year’s World Cup. Slovenia, with just 2 million people (or fewer than Houston, Texas), is the smallest.
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But Slovenia has proved in the recent past that it is not afraid of punching above its weight. The tiny Alpine nation bested favorites Czech Republic and Poland in World Cup qualifying before edging out a skilled Russian team in a thrilling two-leg playoff to earn participation in only its second World Cup after a first appearance in 2002 in South Korea.
For the two squads, their second group stage match had long been marked as a pivotal one on their respective calendars. With one of the two top spots pretty much reserved for England and Algeria widely considered the weakest of the four teams, a victory for either the U.S. or Slovenia in their second game would go a long way toward securing qualification for the second round.
And expectations before Friday’s match were high on both sides.
Following its first-ever World Cup victory over Algeria on Sunday, Slovenia was brimming with confidence. Slovenia’s midfielder Andrej Komac said it in unusually unequivocal terms when he told reporters this week ahead of the U.S. game: “We are going to win this match.”
Ziga Kajfez, a 39-year-old travel agent from Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital, said he and 600 other Slovenian supporters in town for the match expected no less than three points from their clash with the only remaining world superpower.
“If we beat Russia, why can’t we beat the United States,” he said.
Interest has been high back home, and “almost everybody” in Slovenia was expected to be in front of a TV screen come kickoff time, Kajfez said.
Independent only since 1991 when it broke off from war-torn Yugoslavia, Slovenia has struggled to establish a recognizable presence on the world stage. The extent of Slovenia’s public-relations problem was revealed in 1999 when then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush confused the country with Slovakia, another relatively recent central European country.
Since then, Slovenia, which boasts both Alpine and Mediterranean landscapes, has increasingly sought to market itself as a tourist destination, but it has counted first and foremost on its athletes to publicize the Slovenia brand. Over the past two decades, the country has collected numerous successes in alpine skiing and ski jumping and has sent several of its basketball players to the NBA. The national soccer team has done its part, too, with qualification to one European Championship and two World Cups. The recent triumph against Russia ranks as Slovenia soccer’s highest achievement.
Regardless of how the U.S. performs in this World Cup, the mood of the country is unlikely to be altered. Soccer is a minor sport and will remain so for years to come. But a good run in the World Cup will galvanize millions of television watching sports fans. Team U.S.A. continues to approach the World Cup with high hopes, which were only heightened after its opening draw against favorites England.
“I think we’ve got a shot at winning a group,” said David Rabin, a 26-year-old U.S. supporter from New York, before Friday’s game.