By Kevin Koczwara
The United States Men’s National Team saw its World Cup dreams slipping away Friday when Slovenia, the Group C leader, scored in the 13th minute. Valter Birsa fired home a left-footed shot from just outside the 18-yard box after the Yanks defense backed off, giving him enough space to pick his corner.
The shot caught American goalkeeper Tim Howard and the rest of the Yanks off guard. Howard’s face told the whole story as the ball buzzed by him, bending away into the side netting, he looked confused and concerned.
Howard and company had every reason to be concerned but no reason to be confused – they were under-performing.
If the Yanks lost to Slovenia, their chances of making it out of the group stage would be slim to none. And Slovenia wasn’t done in the first half.
In the 43rd minute the Green Dragons struck again. Zlatan Ljubijankic gave the Slovenians a 2-0 lead just before half and all looked lost for the Yanks.
The Americans had one chance in the first half called back when referee Koman Coulibaly of Mali blew the whistle on Robbie Findley for a handball in the Slovenia box. Findley received a yellow card for the hand ball, but the ball appeared to strike his face, not the hand. If play was allowed to continue, the Americans had numbers in the box and could have come up with a goal. Play was called back and the Yanks barely found the box for the rest of the half.
After the break, a different American side walked on to the field – the American side many expected to show up from the beginning. Landon Donovan showed his skill and pace in the 47th minute, blowing past his defender and sending a blistering shot from the right side of the six-yard box for a goal.
The U.S. would level in the 82nd minute when Jozy Altidore headed down a long ball to Michael Bradley in the box and Bradley finished the half volley by putting the ball into the top of the net with power and just enough touch.
The Americans should have got a third goal in the 86th minute when Maurice Edu knocked in a cross from a Donovan free kick past Slovenia goalkeeper Samir Handanovic. Edu was onside and there was no foul by an American player, but Coulibaly blew the whistle, calling the goal off and no one – not Bob Bradley, not even Coulibaly himself – seems to know why.
But, the United States preserved the possibility of a berth in the round of 16 and have some momentum going into their final match against Algeria.
Thoughts on the Match:
The United States’ poor form early was similar to what happened during the CONCACAF qualification rounds. The Yanks finished first in the group, but they fell behind in almost all of their games, only to come from behind and win, which isn’t as easy to pull off in the World Cup Finals.
If they let up and early goal to an underrated Algeria team, then they may be kissing their chances of advancing out of the group stage for the first time since 1994 goodbye.
Jose Torres started the game instead of Ricardo Clark, and he looked lost for much of the first half. It was his first ever World Cup game, and the pressure and nerves may have got to him. I have been calling for him to play over Clark because the United States has been poor in the midfield with their passing and creativity. Torres didn’t make a good case for himself yesterday, but he is still young and has many years ahead of him.
With Torres’ disappointing performance in the first half, Edu found himself on the field for the U.S. to start the second half. Edu started off shaky, looking nervous in his debut, but after he collected himself, and the United States went full-tilt into the attack in moving to a 3-4-3, Edu really shined as the holding midfielder. Michael Bradley pushed forward, leaving Edu to be the Yanks’ main man in the defensive half of the midfield where he excelled when granted the space to roam, disrupt and play the ball outside.
There is a theme here: substitutes making a major impact for the Yanks in the second half.
Benny Feilhaber, one of the Americans’ most underrated players, came on for the ineffective Robbie Findley at the half. Findley had been almost non-existent and his first touch let him down on much of his time spent on the field.
Feilhaber’s ball skill and passing ability made him a great foil to the Edu and Bradley partnership behind him in the midfield. His ability to spray the ball around the field opened the wings for Donovan and Clint Dempsey, who had been forced to pinch in to receive the ball, creating poor spacing for the Americans. Feilhaber is a forgotten player for American fans and journalists, but he is one of the squad’s most technically gifted players. He is sometimes played out of position on a wing, leading to some disappointing performances. But, when he is allowed to play just behind a striker, he can create and help the United States find the killer pass into the attacking third. Don’t be surprised if he starts the next match with Findley unavailable because of his two yellow cards in two matches.
Herculez Gomez came on before the Yanks’ second goal for defender Oguchi Onyewu. The Pachuca striker is being implemented as a game-changing element for U.S. manager Bob Bradley. Gomez had his part in the Americans’ second goal when he made a run into the box and dragged the only defender with him in the box after Altidore’s header, opening up Michael Bradley for the game tying-strike.
The United States will have to play with the same kind of urgency it showed in the second half against Slovenia to make sure it advances through the group stage. A win will allow the Americans to move on to the knock-out round against a team from the very difficult group D, which includes Germany, Ghana and a gritty Serbian side. If Bob Bradley’s side comes out flat again and gives Algeria an early goal, then the Yanks will have an almost insurmountable mountain to climb because a tie or a loss could mean the Americans head home earlier than expected.
Kevin Koczwara is a contributing writer and editor for The Soccer Guys. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.