The US vs. Slovenia 2-2 draw puts the Americans exactly where it likes to be best – confident and yet desperate.
Yes, Mali referee Koman Colibaly might be the only human on the planet who knows exactly why Maurice Edu’s game-winning, 85th-minute goal was ruled out in today's hugely entertaining World Cup match (see video below).
But this was not Frenchman Thierry Henry knocking the Irish out of a World Cup berth by doing everything short of grabbing the ball, tucking it under his arm, and throwing it into the net. Nor was it Diego Maradona eliminating the English in 1986 by punching a ball into the goal.
No, the USA, in some ways, still holds its World Cup fate in its hands. The referee's call might have squashed one of the more remarkable comeback stories in World Cup history, but it by no means eliminated the Americans.
For all its pyrotechnics and game-ending relief, though, the USA-Slovenia game cruelly exposed one fact about the USA: They are woefully incapable of playing the bloodless, tactical chess match at which so many European teams excel.
Perhaps it is a part of the American DNA. Perhaps the aversion to the prospect of “nil-nil” – that most damning of American critiques on soccer – makes Americans incapable of playing the style of soccer that yields such a result.
It is why America has a tendency of shooting itself in the foot.
In the first half, when the game was still tactical thrust and parry, the USA was mercilessly ripped apart. For 45 minutes, Slovenia showed how easy it was to beat the USA: Stay tight defensively to stifle the USA’s very capable counterattack and then simply pounce in the moments when its defensive discipline waned.
Two clear opportunities presented themselves. Slovenia scored twice. In the 13th minute, the American midfield vanished, allowing Slovenia’s Valter Birsa to stride into the open space uncontested and strike a curling goal from 20 yards.
Then three minutes before the half, the USA midfield – so eager for an equalizer – forgot its defensive duties again, allowing Slovenian Milivoje Novakovic to bear down on the American defense unimpeded. He slid a pass to Zlatan Ljubijankic, who scored.
To complete a stirring second-half comeback, the USA needed to bring the game to its level – to make it a test of emotion and fortitude as much as tactic and technique.
It is quite literally the American way.
No one who watched the Celtics and Lakers bang on each other for 48 minutes in Game 7 of the NBA Finals Thursday night could convincingly argue that it was basketball of the highest quality. But it was sport played at its highest emotional pitch.
What did commentators say about what was needed to win that Game 7? Hunger. Desire. Passion. Commitment.
Such is feared, or at least attenuated into moderation, in the sporting world outside the US. The heart is to be trammeled by the lessons of positioning, discipline, and strategy. To Americans, though, it appears that passion is the irrepressible emanation of the sporting soul – even in this most cagey of sports.
Against Slovenia, it was summoned belatedly and offensively – and the fact that it unsettled an organized Slovenia side is no small accomplishment. It suggests that, despite its tactical deficiencies, the USA is becoming a more skilled soccer nation.
Landon Donovan’s goal three minutes after the break was an angled strike of astonishing power and precision – a cannon blast into the roof of the net precisely when he appeared to be running our of options on the right flank.
Jozy Altidore became the battering ram that his body suggests he should always be, laying waste to entire columns of Slovenians, clearing the path for Michael Bradley to knock in the American equalizer in the 82nd minute – another accomplished finish – over an onrushing keeper.
Eight years ago at World Cup 2002, American emotion broke like waves upon the rocks of stolid German and Yugoslavian organization. Now, America is gaining the skill to make that emotion tell – at least against the No. 25 team in the world.
It leaves the USA needing to play desperation soccer from the opening whistle Wednesday.
The good news for the USA is: Apparently, that is precisely where they like to be.
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