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Friday, June 18, 2010
Updated: June 19, 1:01 PM ET
When a tie can be considered a loss

By Jemele Hill
ESPN.com

JOHANNESBURG -- The horrific call that forced Team USA to settle for a 2-2 tie with Slovenia was so bad that I'm surprised Texas Rep. Joe Barton hasn't already called Malian referee Koman Coulibaly to apologize for the harsh criticism the official undoubtedly deserves.

For sure, after seeing the outcome of the U.S.-Slovenia match, English fans are probably snickering and thinking the United States deserved this karma, because a mishandled ball by goalkeeper Robert Green propelled the U.S. to a 1-1 draw with England on Saturday.

But regardless of what your rooting interests are or how you feel about officials' being blamed for losses -- or in this case, a tie -- disallowing Maurice Edu's goal in the 86th minute was an injustice that robbed the Americans from completing the most compelling comeback so far in the World Cup.

"It was overwhelming emotion at that point," Edu said of his disallowed goal. "We were filled with joy, and then it was disappointment. I thought it was the moment we won the game."

If the tie with England felt like a moral victory, this one feels like a devastating loss, even though the U.S. still remains in prime position to make it out of its group after two consecutive draws. And how ironic it is that Slovenia, the smallest of the 32 nations in this tournament, benefited from what is easily the biggest mistake of the World Cup.

The storyline of this match should be about Team USA's resolve, but instead it's about a referee who instantly became a household name for the worst reasons.

Coulibaly's disallowing of the U.S. goal was just one of the ridiculous calls he made in this match. Let's also not forget he assessed Robbie Findley a yellow card for an intentional handball -- which means Findley will sit out the next match -- even though it was clear the ball ricocheted off Findley's face and hit his hand.

It would be different if Coulibaly had a spotless record, but he doesn't. This is the same official who assessed Egypt a controversial time-stoppage penalty during its final 2006 World Cup qualifier against Cameroon. Egypt prevailed after Cameroon's missed kick.

No question the Americans played badly in the first half, falling behind 2-0 to a scrappy Slovenian team. The U.S.'s defense was leaky, and it continued its bad habit of giving up early goals, as Valter Birsa put Slovenia on the board with a goal in the 13th minute of play.

But is a bad half an excuse to have a match stolen?

"We asked the referee many times, and he wouldn't or couldn't explain," said striker Landon Donovan, whose goal in the 48th minute from the right wing broke the U.S.'s drought. "I don't know how much English he spoke. We asked him numerous times in a nonconfrontational manner, and he just ignored us or didn't understand us."

And from the looks of it, no one but Coulibaly will ever know his rationale for calling a foul that doesn't seem to have existed. In the official FIFA play-by-play, the foul was given to Edu, but if you've watched any of the television replays, Edu appears to be blameless. However, what is noticeable is the Slovenian players holding and grabbing Michael Bradley and Carlos Bocanegra as though their uniforms were made of super glue.

Coulibaly isn't commenting on the disallowed goal -- at least that's what FIFA told a U.S. soccer spokesperson -- so in addition to an injustice, the scent of unaccountability also lingers.

I'm not one who usually blames officiating for wins and losses, but overlooking the magnitude of such a poor decision is virtually impossible.

If Slovenia proved it deserved to win after a tremendous first half, the U.S. also demonstrated it didn't deserve to settle for a tie after such a terrific comeback. Tying isn't losing, but it isn't winning, either.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com