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Friday, June 18, 2010
U.S. lives to fight another day

By Jeff Carlisle
ESPN.com

JOHANNESBURG -- The tale of two U.S. men's national teams was on display Friday night against Slovenia.

In the first half, an abjectly poor and passive U.S. side was pulled apart like taffy, leaving a misshapen mess -- and a 2-0 deficit. In the second half, the Americans kick-started their game and rode goals from Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley to salvage a 2-2 tie.

And had it not been for a phantom call by referee Koman Coulibaly late in the match that disallowed Maurice Edu's potential game winner, the United States would have walked off the Ellis Park pitch with a comeback for the ages.

Either way, it was the most captivating match of the tournament so far, yet it left U.S. players and coaches facing the age-old question: Was the match a case of one point gained, or two points dropped?

Not even U.S. manager Bob Bradley was sure.

"At one moment in the second half it seemed a point gained and another moment where it seemed two points lost," Bradley said. "We knew going into the game that we would give ourselves a great chance to advance with a win. Our goal was to win; our mentality was to win. But it was still a situation where we couldn't lose, and … at the end of the day, the tie keeps us alive, and that's the most important thing."

Given that the United States was stronger in the end, the memory of its second-half fight-back is likely to be the one the Yanks will take with them as they head into Wednesday's crunch match against Algeria.

Consistency is what is needed for teams to progress to the knockout stages, and so far the United States has shown precious little of that commodity. Instead, the team's play has been like one of Nuke LaLoosh's pitching performances -- all over the place. Unless this changes, the United States will be in danger of squandering a golden opportunity to make the right kind of World Cup history.

Certainly, the worst elements of the Americans' game were on display in the first 45 minutes. Passes were under-hit and defensive organization was in meager supply. The low point: In the 13th minute, an embarrassingly open Valter Birsa was allowed to receive the ball in acres of space and bend his 23-yard shot past a stranded Tim Howard.

"Our [defending and midfield] lines were too far apart, and he had too much time and space to turn," defender Carlos Bocanegra said. "It was like a free kick with no wall."

As it's done so many times, the United States picked itself up off the pitch and looked close to gaining an equalizer. But a classic Slovenian counterattack opened up a disjointed U.S. backline, allowing Milivoje Novakovic to spring Zlatan Ljubijankic on a breakaway, with the Slovenian slotting his shot under the advancing Howard.

Of course, this is not the first time the United States has started a game poorly, but it still begs the question of why it keeps happening. The easy answer is to simply blame Bradley for the old catchall of "not having his team ready to play." But there comes a point when individual players bear more of the responsibility.

"It's a World Cup, so you're not going to fix something in four days," Donovan said. "At some point, you have to take it upon yourself to do a better job and too many guys didn't have good halves. But then again, a lot of guys turned it around and reacted a lot better in the second half."

Did they ever. Bradley proceeded to make several changes at halftime. Out went the ineffective Jose Torres and Robbie Findley. In came Edu and Benny Feilhaber.

Yet the biggest change was between the ears. With the team's tournament life on the line, the United States picked up its intensity and just three minutes into the second half pulled a goal back. Donovan was released down the right wing by Steve Cherundolo, and with no suitable option available, he advanced into the penalty area and roofed his shot past a timid Samir Handanovic.

"I decided to take a touch and aim high, and aim at his head," Donovan said. "I don't think he wanted to get hit."

The United States proceeded to pile on the pressure. It was finally rewarded in the 82nd minute, when Donovan's long pass was expertly knocked down by Jozy Altidore right into the path of Bradley, who rifled his shot past Handanovic for a tournament-saving equalizer.

The Americans then went for the kill and thought they had it four minutes later, when Edu volleyed home Donovan's perfectly weighted free kick, only for Coubilay to spoil the party by whistling for a foul. On whom the foul was called remains a mystery. The official FIFA play-by-play listed Edu as the offender. Another theory making the rounds after the game was that Bradley had committed the foul.

"To the best of my knowledge, I didn't make contact with anybody," Edu said. "I just [ran] into the box uncontested and just tapped it in."

"Honestly, I think that most of what took place was that the Slovenia players were holding our players," Bob Bradley said. "One thing I've heard is that the one player from Slovenia had his arms around Michael [Bradley]. Michael was just trying to break loose from being held. I don't know if that's accurate, but that's one version."

No explanation came from Coubilay, and as the final whistle blew, Michael Bradley nearly went to the dark side in trying to confront officials about the call as well as the lack of additional stoppage time.

While the finish was contentious, what is certain is that the United States has lived to fight another day in the World Cup. Regardless of what happens in Friday's nightcap between England and Algeria, the Americans enter their last match needing to win, and then likely hoping for the right result in England's encounter with Slovenia to see if they'll progress.

The big question, of course, is this: Which U.S. team will show up, the disorganized lot that turned up for this game's first half, or the fired-up comeback kids of the second half?

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN Soccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.