A late Michael Bradley strike rescued a draw for a USA side that looked doomed at half time. This was a stirring second half performance by the US, and they might even have won it at the death. Maurice Edu had the ball in the net from a free kick in the closing minutes but it was ruled out by the referee.
Slovenia were by far the better side in the first half and had the lead after just 13 minutes. Valter Birsa, the Auxerre midfielder, picked up the ball 25 yards out with his back to goal and, in one fluid motion, turned and hammered a dipping shot that left Tim Howard rooted to the spot as it flew past him.
They continued to dominate the bulk of possession with USA looking for Robbie Findley on the counter. The Real Salt Lake winger has pace to burn but not much else to his credit and constantly gave the ball away. The game soon descended into scrappiness, both teams wasteful in possession, until Zlatan Ljubijankic doubled Slovenia’s lead just before half time.
It was the simplest of goals, too. Milivoje Novakovic slid a through ball past the defence, Ljubijankic’s run beat the offside trap and the Ghent striker slotted it underneath the onrushing Tim Howard. On the USA bench coach Bob Bradley looked stunned and with good reason.
Bradley made two changes at half time. Findley had disappointed and so made way for the wonderfully-named Benny Feilhaber. José Torres was a fine passer of the ball in midfield but had been bundled off the ball all too easily by Slovenia in the first half so he too was removed, Glasgow Rangers’s Maurice Edu replacing him.
They pulled one back within four minutes. Landon Donovan broke down the right and cut into the penalty area. Running towards the goal line he looked square to assess his options, saw nothing he fancied, looked again, saw nothing and so smashed the ball into the roof of the net from a tight angle six yards out. It was a gutsy finish and gave the USA a much-needed boost.
But the game quickly settled back into its first half pattern – scrappy stuff, misplaced passes and silly fouls. Jozy Altidore was especially frustrating, turning his marker brilliantly only to get the ball stuck in his feet. He stole onto a loose ball after a Donovan shot but fired straight down the keeper’s throat. With a little over ten minutes left he broke down the right and had four players in support but flashed a tame shot well wide.
It was starting to feel like it wasn’t going to happen for the USA when they made it happen, and it was the coach’s son who applied the finishing touch. It was route one stuff, Donovan’s long ball nodded down by Altidore for Michael Bradley to meet on the slide, sending his finish high into the net and the crowd six different kinds of crazy.
Just four minutes later USA thought they had the game won, Edu turning Donovan’s free kick in only to find the goal disallowed for a foul in the melee of players in the area. Replays showed that there were indeed plenty of fouls but almost all were Slovenian on American bodies. The ref, too, had the whistle in his mouth the whole time, as if he had decided there was going to be a foul before Donovan had even crossed it.
In many ways a draw was the right result – this was the classic game of two halves. USA will rightly feel hard done by especially as a win would have seen them level atop the group with Slovenia on four points. Group C is now delicately poised: all four teams can still qualify, and few would want to predict who will eventually do so given the surprising results this group has produced thusfar.