U.S. stays alive with gritty 2nd half comeback and 2-2 tie with Slovenia

June 18, 2010 | Drew Forrester

Two games, two ties.

Two games, two points.

But if a tie is like kissing your sister, this tie by the United States National Team today is like kissing Jessica Biel.

Make no mistake about it, the United States survived to play another day by earning a 2-2 draw with Slovenia on Friday, but there’s lots of work to do for Bob Bradley’s team before they can book a trip to next weekend’s knock-out round of the World Cup.

The U.S. next plays Algeria on Wednesday, June 23.  Anything less than a win won’t be good enough for the Americans, who were favored against Slovenia but failed to deliver a victory for the second straight game after falling behind 2-0 at the half.

The game started in dreadful fashion for the Americans, as a host of players fell asleep in the midfield and Slovenia’s Valter Birsa caught goalkeeper Tim Howard flat footed with a 30-yard shot in the 13th minute.  Jose Torres, who coughed up the ball as much as he kept it in the first half, lost his man after a turnover and Michael Bradley watched a give and go that caught Oguchi Oneywu by surprise. When none of those three could make up the necessary space to close down Birsa, he simply pegged a left-footer past a shocked Howard and it was 1-0 — and an easy 1-0 at that.

After Torres nearly knotted the game on a well hit free kick from just outside the box, the unattentive American defense was again exposed late in the first half, as Jay DeMerit lost his man in transition and Onyewu failed to step up and close down his man, giving Zlatan Ljubljankic the opportunity to finish off a nifty one-two.  Ljubljankic buzzed in uncontested and slid the ball underneath a late charging Howard at the 42 minute mark to put the U.S. down 2-0 heading to the locker room.

At that point, it certainly didn’t look good for the U.S.

Bradley made two changes to his 2nd half lineup, inserting Maurice Edu and Benny Feilhaber and sending the wobbly-Torres and the obviously overwhelmed Robbie Findley to the bench.

Findley, much to Bradley’s private delight, I’m sure, drew his second yellow card of the tournament in the first half and is suspended for the Wednesday encounter with Algeria.  That’s one tough talk Bradley won’t have to have with one of his young players.

The second half started precisely the way the U.S. wanted it to, as Landon Donovan took advantage of Slovenian defensive miscue and poured a shot into the upper part of the net from the right doorstep in the 48th minute.  Both teams had chances thereafter, although the Americans controlled most of the play from goalbox to goalbox.  Jozy Altidore, who put together a rock-star 90 minutes, nearly tied the game with a shot from 15 yards out but it was expertly gobbled up by Slovenia’s outstanding netminder, Samir Handanovic.  At that point, it wasn’t a matter of whether or not the U.S. would score ONE goal to tie it, but who would account for the 2nd goal that would win it?

Answer:  Maurice Edu would score the third goal.

Sort of.

Before Edu’s clinical finish that should have given the U.S. an improbable victory, Michael Bradley tied the game at 2-2, completing a chance in the 82nd minute that was nodded in his path by Altidore, who has supported Bradley’s faith in him by turning in a good game (England) and a very good one (Slovenia) in group play.  Bradley’s effort on the game-tying goal epitomized the Americans’ second half grit, as he worked his way through traffic and read the play perfectly before sliding into the ball and one-timing it past Handanovic.  The game-tying marker was set up by a world class deep ball from Donovan, who atoned for an otherwise forgettable performance against England by leading the 2nd half charge on Friday.

The Bradley tally set the stage for what will be talked about for days, maybe months and years, depending on what happens next Wednesday against Algeria.

On a set-play in the 86th minute, Donovan curled a bullet into the box and Edu stepped in between pedestrian Slovenian defenders and re-directed it past Handanovic to put the Americans up 3-2.

Initially, the announcing crew assumed that Bradley had been called offsides, but in the post-game press conference, FIFA disclosed that the official called Maurice Edu for a foul on the ball that was sent into the box.

Well, OK…if they say so.

There will be plenty of discussion about the whistle and the foul or the offsides call or whatever it is that happened.  The replay showed there were probably five fouls occuring at that point, every guy grabbing and jostling with the man he was next to…it’s like the NBA…every single trip down the court, there’s a foul.  On every occasion a ball is sent into the box on a set-play, there’s a foul.

Did Edu create a foul in the box?  Perhaps.

Is soccer becoming a tougher and tougher game to officiate?  Without question.

Based on scrambling around like amateurs in the first half and falling behind 2-0, the U.S. probably ONLY deserved a 2-2 tie on Friday.

But they sure gave us all plenty to be proud of in the final 45 minutes, as they stared defeat and elimination in the face, spit at their opposition, and rebounded passionately in the second half to earn a point and stay alive for five more days, at least.

That’s all we could have asked for at the intermission.

And next Wednesday against Algeria, if they can put together 90 minutes of passionate soccer, the U.S. just might make its way to the second round of play in this 2010 World Cup.

Here’s my player-by-player review of the Americans in the 2-2 tie with Slovenia.  The 1 (low) to 10 (high) scale is as follows:

Tim Howard (6) — Suspect on the first goal and unable to come up with the big save on the 2nd goal, but he rebounded with a strong second half and dominated the box on a number of occasions to hold Slovenia off the scoreboard in the final 45 minutes.

Jay DeMerit (6) — Like Howard, had a much better second half.  Got nicked on the 2nd goal and watched his man slip a breakaway past the American GK.  Responded with a gritty second half.

Carlos Bocanegra (5) — A complete liability in the first half, he was partially responsible for the first goal when he failed to track back and mark Birsa after a turnover by the U.S.  Looked fatigued and out of place throughout the 2nd half but none of his mistakes were costly.  One of his worst performances in recent memory.

Oguchi Oneywu (4) — Clearly turned in the worst performance of any American on Friday, failing to close down the lane on Birsa’s goal and then failing to read the give-and-go quickly enough on the 2nd Slovenian tally.  One step up and he would have created an offsides situation, but his lack of attention allowed the play to be completed.  Subbed in the 75th minute.

Steve Cherundulo (7) — Another positive performance for the diminutive defender, he was pesky going forward and did his work on the flanks to keep the Slovenians from attacking the U.S. on the outside.

Clint Dempsey (6) — Would have had the assist on Donovan’s first half goal that was expertly cleared by Brecko, but other than that, he didn’t do much for the second straight game.

Michael Bradley (7) — Costly dive-in helped start the counter-attack that led to the 2nd Slovenian goal, but his energy and work rate sparked the American comeback in the second half, which he completed with a stunning one-timer.

Jose Torres (5) — Had a decent first 20 minutes, but lost the ball throughout the latter part of the first half and was pulled at intermission.  Nearly scored on a free kick, but wasn’t able to match the midfield pace and earned the hook after just 45 minutes.

Landon Donovan (8) — Nothing in the first half, but a spectacular 2nd half that included a world-class goal and a terrific floating ball to the head of Altidore that set up Bradley’s game-tying effort.  He also set up the Edu goal that was waved off.

Robbie Findley (5) — Had one bright moment when he made a good decision on a counter attack and slipped a pass to Dempsey that nearly turned into a first half goal, but otherwise he was once again like a fish out of water.  Earned a seat on the bench after 45 minutes, the second straight game he’s been subbed for.

Jozy Altidore (7) — Was outstanding in the second half, but once again had a terrific chance that was belted right at the goalkeeper in the 60th minute.  Still, he was a beast in the box and nodded the ball into Bradley’s path for the game-tying tally.  Unlike Findley, his play has improved over the two games.

Subs —

Maurice Edu (6) — Would have been an instant hero had his goal counted.  Played well defensively and might have earned a start vs. Algeria with his effort on Friday.

Benny Feilhaber (5) — Didn’t do much.  No mistakes.  But not much contribution in his 45 minutes.

Herculez Gomez (5) — Had one half-decent chance but it was blown off due to a foul.  Other than that, his name wasn’t called in 15 minutes.

Coach Bob Bradley (7) — Gambled on Torres (a move I liked, frankly) and lost, as he didn’t control the ball well enough to warrant the playing time.  To Bradley’s credit, he made instant changes at the intermission and sat Findley (out of his element) and Torres and played the veteran Feilhaber and the growing-in-confidence Edu.  But he kept them intact and focused at intermission and earns a high mark for helping to rescue the U.S. from a Cup-ending defeat.  I thought he waited too long for the Gomez substitution, but it all worked out in the end.