(Published on the Philly Soccer Page on June 18, 2010.)
The U.S. were robbed.
In the books, it will go down as a 2-2 draw to Slovenia, but we know better.
A Malian referee named Koman Coulibaly has stolen the greatest comeback in U.S. soccer history.
No team had ever come back from a 2-0 halftime deficit to win a World Cup match, but the U.S. sought to do just that. Landon Donovan scored quickly, in the 48th minute. Michael Bradley netted in the 82nd.
Then, in the 86th minute, Donovan curled in a beautiful free kick. Maurice Edu broke free and drilled it into the top of the net.
Not so fast. Coulibaly waved the goal off.
Why? We still don’t know. What was the call? It couldn’t have been offsides, because the replay shows nobody was even close. Was it a foul? If so, maybe on Slovenia, for Aleksander Radosavljevic wrapping both arms around Bradley on the play. (Watch ESPN break down the play here.)
In all of professional sports, there is no circumstance, no set of rules, no situation more inexplicable than the fact that a ref can make such a game-altering call and not be required to explain it to anyone on the field. There is no accountability whatsoever. He simply blows a whistle. He doesn’t say whether it’s a foul, who it’s on, nothing. Nothing!
It’s a damn travesty.
This was hands down the most exciting match of the World Cup so far, and it’s a disgrace that it ended the way it did. Whether you root for the U.S. or not, the match was a thrill to watch. You had goals, attacking soccer, and a fiery comeback.
My friends in South Africa say everyone there is shocked by what happened. We’re shocked here. It’s like being kicked in the groin.
Yes, the U.S. never should have gone down 2-0. Defensive breakdowns marred their first half. No one filled in when Jay DeMerit got pulled out wide before the first goal, leaving Valter Birsa wide open at the top of the box to take his shot. Center back Oguchi Onyewu had a miserable game and clearly isn’t even close to top form after recovering from knee surgery. Midfielder Jose Francisco Torres didn’t meet the hefty expectations some of us put on him. Goalkeeper Tim Howard was less than superhuman.
But the comeback was sheer brilliance.
Donovan started it in the 48th minute with his great run and blistering shot into the top of the net. He, Bradley and Jozy Altidore had phenomenal second halves, with each playing aggressively and seemingly willing their team to victory.
Another man who had a great second half — and halftime — was U.S. coach Bob Bradley. He made two switches that appeared to have worked, bringing Edu and Benny Feilhaber in for Robbie Findley and Torres, then shifting Dempsey up to forward. Findley had a yellow card and wasn’t playing great, and the one thing the U.S. couldn’t afford was to go a man down if Findley drew another card.
Later, in the 80th minute, the coach pulled Onyewu and sent in forward Herculez Gomez in a brilliant tactical gamble. The U.S. went to a 3-4-3 formation, something Feilhaber said they’d never done before, even in practice. It paid off two minutes later when Donovan lofted a nice ball into the box and Altidore, who was dominant throughout the second half, sent a perfect header bouncing downward toward goal. Gomez cleared a defender with a run on goal, and Bradley cut into the gap to drill the ball home.
Then came the highway robbery.
Thankfully, the England – Algeria scoreless draw means a U.S. win Wednesday against Algeria puts the U.S. into the knockout rounds. If the U.S. can’t beat Algeria, they probably don’t deserve to go through anyway.
But with the refs seemingly playing against the U.S., much as many felt they did in last year’s World Cup, would it surprise anyone to see another questionable call kill the U.S. next week? Even before Edu’s disallowed goal, there were sketchy calls. Findley was given a yellow card for a ball that hit him in the face because the ref thought it hit him in the hand. He’s now suspended for the Algeria match (which could be a blessing in disguise for the U.S.). Altidore was taken down at the edge of the box on a potential goal-scoring run, but Coulibaly deemed it only worthy of a yellow card when he easily could have given a red. (Coulibaly is lucky this wasn’t against a team like Serbia, because their fans might have found and killed him by now.)
The anticlimactic nature of the game left many spent and empty.
But there is one silver lining.
The U.S. will come out hungry against Algeria. They’ll come out with a collective chip on their shoulders. They’ll be angry, focused, and playing for the win.
The last time they had to do that, it began a miraculous run to the Confederations Cup final.
Could they do it again, only this time on the grander stage?