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US comes back for 2-2 draw with Slovenia

Team America drives back in 2nd half but is stalled by referee's call.

US Michael Bradley scores against Slovenia
Michael Bradley (4) of the U.S. shoots to score the second goal past Slovenia's goalkeeper Samir Handanovic during their 2010 World Cup Group C soccer match at Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg June 18, 2010. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

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.”

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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.