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U.S.-Slovenia game a thriller marred only by controversial end

JOHANNESBURG -- It was the best game we've seen so far at the World Cup, an instant classic that had more goals and chances than Switzerland's upset of Spain, more open attacking from both sides than Brazil's takedown of North Korea and more organic drama than Greece's red-card-aided comeback win against Nigeria.

But the U.S.'s 2-2 tie with Slovenia will also forever be known as the game in which referee Koman Coulibaly of Mali disallowed a seemingly legal late U.S. goal for reasons that only he might know. When U.S. midfielder Maurice Edu slammed home Landon Donovan's 86th-minute free kick, it appeared that the Americans had become the first team in World Cup history to turn a 2-0 halftime deficit into a 3-2 victory.

But within seconds Coulibaly, who's working his first World Cup, negated the call without explaining to anyone -- players and coaches included -- why he was wiping two points off the board for the U.S. team.

Was the call for offside? Doubtful: the assistant referee didn't raise his flag. More likely the call was for a U.S. foul. The only slightly official answer might have come from the play-by-play on FIFA's website, which said that Edu had been whistled for a foul, but it's unlikely that the play-by-play operator was in direct communication with Coulibaly.

Edu, like everyone else on the U.S. team, was left perplexed. "I don't know what foul he could have called on me, because I started at the top of the box and no one was marking me as I made my run far-post."

"You guys will have to ask the ref if there's any way to figure that out," said U.S. midfielder Clint Dempsey. "I'd like to know."

"Honestly, I think on the set-piece most of what took place was the Slovenian players were holding our players," said U.S. coach Bob Bradley. "From what I was told, there were three fouls in the box, all against Slovenia players."

As much as I love soccer, I do get extremely frustrated by how often the postgame discussion revolves around the referee's decisions. No sport, not even NBA basketball, approaches soccer when it comes to officiating controversy. And no sport does less to provide teams and fans with explanations for refereeing decisions. The fact is that we may never know why Coulibaly waved off the U.S. goal -- FIFA doesn't allow a pool reporter to interview the referee, as most sports do, and I got no response when I e-mailed FIFA's head press officer in search of an explanation.

In the postgame mixed zone, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said he hadn't seen replays yet, but he had received 43 text messages from people who had watched the replay and not seen a foul. "We don't know what the foul was," said Gulati. "We'll ask, but they're not required to tell us."

Of course, one thing that you always have to remember about getting jobbed by the referee is this: It wasn't the referee's fault that the U.S. went down 2-0 in the first half, and it wasn't the referee's fault that the Americans couldn't score an additional goal in the rest of the 90-minute game.

Once again, the U.S. showed early on that it has a harder time playing as the favorite than as the underdog, allowing two goals to Slovenia, the smallest country in the World Cup population-wise. Valter Birsa hit a bomb from distance to give Slovenia a 1-0 lead, but no U.S. defender covered to pressure Birsa after Michael Bradley had been pulled out on the play: Not Donovan, not Jose Torres and (most importantly) not Oguchi Onyewu, who should have stepped forward in that situation.

Onyewu was at fault again on Slovenia's second goal, playing Zlatan Ljubijankic onside before he beat U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard to give the upstarts a 2-0 advantage. While Onyewu had his moments in the tie against England, his first half against Slovenia showed that he has not yet fully recovered his speed of thought and execution that he had before his recent seven-month knee injury layoff. How he'll respond in upcoming games is anyone's guess.

But then the U.S. showed why it has become one of the favorite teams of neutral fans in this World Cup, unleashing a ferocious comeback in the second half. What is it about the goal in the north end of Ellis Park stadium? All five of the goals in the U.S.'s Confederations Cup final loss to Brazil were scored in that goal, and all four of the goals on Friday were too.

Donovan was immense in the second half against Slovenia, triggering the comeback by roofing a force-of-nature blast past goalkeeper Samir Handanovic (whose flinch on Donovan's shot was stunning). The U.S. attack followed from there, even though Bradley had to throw on forward Herculez Gomez for a defender (Onyewu) in a desperate attempt to find the equalizer, which finally came through Bradleyin the 82nd minute.

"We were just trying to push the game in the second half," said Bradley the Younger, who became the first son of his national-team coach to score a goal in a World Cup. "At halftime down 2-0, you know that you've got no choice but to push the game, push the tempo, and just fight like b------s to get back into it."

But if the Americans really want to achieve their full potential in this tournament, they will have to change their approach. In the first two games of this World Cup, the U.S. has had to come from behind for ties, which is a problem essentially opposite to the one it had last year.

Remember? In 2009, the U.S. built leads against Brazil, Italy, Mexico and Spain, only to lose all of those games except for the win over Spain. Now the U.S. has found itself having to claw back from early deficits, a pattern that can't continue if the U.S. wants to make a deep run here.

"It's been a bad run lately of letting goals in," said Donovan. "It's easy to talk about not letting it happen, but it's different on the field. I think maybe tonight we were a little tentative coming out, and it cost us."

At the very least, the U.S. will have to make a change up front against Algeria. Robbie Findley will serve a yellow-card suspension after picking up his second of the tournament on Friday. The U.S. tried over and over again in the first half to send long balls to Findley in an effort to stretch the Slovenian defense, but while Findley did get the ball in some dangerous positions, his passes didn't have the quality to find his teammates.

Torres didn't make the most of his chance to start and was pulled off at halftime for Edu, who may become the third different player to start in that spot in this World Cup in the game against Algeria.

The U.S. ended its Friday by answering questions over whether this 2-2 classic represented one point gained or two points lost. "At the end of the day, it's the World Cup and it's still a point that gets us closer to where we want to be," said Donovan. "But we feel like we should beat that team, so it's a little disappointing."

With England's 0-0 tie against Algeria, though, the Americans now know: Win against Algeria and they're into the second round. It's a useful thing to control your own destiny.

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