HIGHWAY ROBBERY AT ELLIS PARK
With sour memories of last year's Confederations Cup final in Ellis Park still in their minds, the Americans took a page from Brazil's book and nearly overcame a two-goal halftime deficit, only to be denied the win by a controversial decision to reverse a late Maurice Edu strike.
The Dragons jumped out to a two-goal lead in a first half of equal ball possession, but the Americans took control of the second half thanks to goals from Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley. Malian referee Koman Coulibaly would prove to be the author of the final scoreline, disallowing the Edu goal due to an apparent foul.
Within touches after the opening whistle, the game took a tense turn when an inadvertent elbow from Clint Dempsey nailed Zlatan Ljubijankič in the head, requiring attention from the medical crew, but not quite a yellow card from Coulibaly.
The American offense came to life first in the 5th minute after Michael Bradley fed Robbie Findley with a fine through-ball, which the Real Salt Lake man took to draw a corner. Donovan's ensuing corner found Bradley at the front post but the Mönchengladbach midfielder couldn't get a good touch on the delivery at the front post.
The Slovenians responded in the seventh minute after José Torres, who replaced Ricardo Clark in the starting 11, brought down Milivoje Novakovič 30 yards out on the right side. Valter Birsa sent in a free kick for Ljubijankič but the 6'4" striker nodded over the bar.
In the ninth minute the Americans held their breath when another Birsa delivery from the right side slipped in between Ljubijankič and Demerit, and bounced out of bounds.
Four minutes later, starting striker Jozy Altidore tried to rev up the American attack with an individual burst through the middle to Dempsey, but just a touch too far for the Fulham man.
Just when it looked like the US offense was getting organized, Birsa took the game into his own hands in the 13th minute. Receiving a pass from the left side, the unmarked Birsa stepped up to the top of the box and fired a left footer with visible ease past Howard for the 1-0 lead.
The Americans responded four minutes later with ball work down the left side to Findley, who tried to find Altidore in the box but a pair of Slovenian defenders were there to stave off the drive. Bradley followed that up with a solo effort from 35 yards out that sailed over the net.
Slovenia saw their second major opportunity of the game in the 22nd minute after Birsa beamed a free kick from the half-line at Howard. With Novakovic darting into the box, the Everton keeper did well to stick with the ball as the Slovenian slid past and missed by inches.
The US offense organized good ball movement in the 28th minute that culminated in a Donovan cross from the left that Dempsey got a head on, but not enough to direct it towards the net.
They continued their pressure with another drive downfield on the right in the 35th minute leading to Altidore bursting past Bojan Jokić, and drawing a foul from Boštjan Cesar and a yellow card from Coulibaly's pocket for the Slovenian.
Torres stepped up for the free kick from edge of the box on left and fired straight at Samir Handanovič, but the Udinese keeper parried the shot away.
Making his first World Cup start, Torres said he had the backing of Donovan to take a rip at goal.
"(Donovan) told me to smack it," Torres told YA following the match. "On my free kicks, I'm going to go for goal. It was a good chance."
After Donovan's ensuing corner was headed out, Jay Demerit came forward from the backline to header from top of the box, but missed to the left by inches.
Following another Donovan corner into the box, Findley picked up a yellow for an apparent handball in the box, his second of the tournament deeming him ineligible for the Algeria match. Replays confirmed that the ball struck the side of Findley's face, but Coulibaly still showed the striker yellow.
The biggest chance for an equalizer came after Altidore flicked to Dempsey on the right flank, and threaded a pass through the box. Donovan stepped up at the back post to tap it in, but Mišo Brečko got a foot on it and deflected the shot out.
The Slovenians followed that missed opportunity with a goal to take the winds out of the Americans sails. Following two quick passes, Ljubijankič received the ball from Novakocic on the left side and slotted past Howard with a right footer for the 2-0 lead that was taken into the locker room at the half.
Coach Bob Bradley made two substitutions at halftime in hopes of fueling a comeback with Benny Feilhaber stepping on for Findley, and Edu for Torres. Dempsey moved up top on the left with Altidore.
Just minutes after the re-start, Donovan jumpstarted the comeback, collecting a centerfield pass and shaking off Cesar on the right side.
Entering the box, the LA Galaxy striker contemplated a pass through, but instead stepped up and fired into the roof of Handanovič's net to halve the lead.
On all gears, the Americans continued their pressure in the 51st minute when Donovan airmailed a free kick from 40 yards out on left side that a sliding Onyweu could not catch up to at the back post.
Birsa responded with a 40-yard free kick in the 52nd that required a leaping punch from Howard. The Auxerre midfielder crossed the pitch for the corner, which captain Robert Koren launched over the bar.
The US looked to challenge Handanovič again in the 58th when Altdiore shook off Suler and was off to the races but the Gent defender did well to catch up and arrive to the ball first.
Altidore had another shot at the 70 minute mark off a Donovan free kick from 22 meters out which took a deflection and fell at the penalty spot. The Villarreal striker spun on the loose ball for the strike, but straight at Handanovič's gloves.
Coulibaly displayed another yellow card for Andraž Kirm after tripping Steve Cherundolo, setting up a 40 yard free kick from Donovan that Feilhaber nimbly redirected towards the net from the top of the box, but again right at Handanovič.
Following Nejc Pečnik's entry for Ljubijankič in the 74th minute, Dempsey fired a loose ball in a crowd of white shirts through that Bradley could not get a toe on. Jokić picked up the fifth and final booking shortly thereafter for a foul on Donovan.
Slovenia sat back for much of the second half with only half-hearted drives until the American offense came alive after Bradley brought on Herculez Gomez for Onyewu in the 80th minute.
The Americans got the equalizer they were looking for in the 82nd minute courtesy of Bradley. A long ball from Cherundolo on the right side met a well-struck header from Altidore at the top of the box, and fell to Bradley in pursuit for the scoop into the net and the all-important equalizer.
Just a few minutes later, the Americans believed they had surged into the lead when Edu smashed home a Donovan free kick, but Coulibaly was pointing in the box signaling a foul.
"I didn't see a foul or anything," Donovan remarked after the game. "I just saw a normal free kick and a goal."
The elder Bradley shared his understanding of the play after the match as well.
"Players were holding our players," the US coach said of the disputed play. "One player had his arms around Michael (Bradley) and he was just trying to break loose from being held, and a foul was called. I don't know if that's accurate but that's what I've heard."
The affair ended on that controversial note, followed up by the equally surprising scoreless draw between Algeria and England in Cape Town. In spite of the disappointing call, players maintained a positive outlook with the result and the upcoming match.
"I think we deserve to win the game at the end of it all," Feilhaber noted. "We got the draw and that was very important to keep us alive."
With just two points, the U.S. will need a win over Algeria next Wednesday to ensure advancement to the next round.