Cherundolo DeMerit Onyewu Bocanegra
Dempsey Bradley Torres Donovan
RABBLE RABBLE RABBLE
All the focus will be on the "late winner" that was somehow chalked off. And rightfully so – it was a terrible decision always almost made by weak refs, and the US should have taken all three points after a tremendous comeback. Even I've worked myself into a patriotic lather, and you're all well aware where my allegiances lie.
But Bob Bradley's name deserves to be shouted from the rooftops. His substitutions changed the game, with both of the US' goals coming less than three minutes after each. He's exempt from criticism now. Exempt.
Let's get the cliché about how the U.S. never gives up out of the way. You can't count this team out, but if they were able to start games as they finished them, they'd be a current regular at the grown-ups table. The US started tentatively, clearly weighed down by the favorites label they applied to themselves, and were one-dimensional, underwhelming, and unlucky throughout the first half. And they were deservedly behind after Onyewu's dual errors led to soft goals.
Delight boomeranged around the Internet before the match – including from yours truly – as the more-attacking Torres started in place of Clark. Needless to say, it wasn't the right decision, as play completely bypassed midfield. Slovenia pushed forward from the opening whistle, and the Americans' sole release value was punting the ball in the direction of Altidore and Findley. I know that's not all down to Torres, but he was one of the few different variables.
"Step 1: Hoof. Step 2: Hope. Step 3: Prepare for Slovenia to attack again" isn't a winning strategy. And the US were punished for it only 13 minutes in. Birsa picked up the ball in space between two staid lines of four, Onyewu – the nearest defender – failed to step out to close down space, and the Slovenian lashed an unstoppable 20-yard shot past Howard.
Without a firm foundation in midfield – crucial with two similarly deployed 4-4-2s – and with limited ideas going forward, the US weren't able to bounce back from the early goal as they did against England. The side only started creating chances ten minutes before the interval – Torres' driven free kick saved at the near post and Donovan unable to slide in on Dempsey's pass across goal – and were soon punished when caught up-field and the offside trap broke down. Onyewu, yards behind the other defenders, stepped up late to put Ljunijankic through on goal. He smartly finished low into the far corner.
But Bradley somehow regrouped at halftime, restoring the backs-against-the-wall self-belief and making the requisite substitutions. Feilhaber and Edu came on for Torres and Findley, with Dempsey taking up the second striker role. The changes not only firmed up the midfield, but also slowly evolved into a 4-3-3 after Donovan pulled one back in the 48th. Through on the right after Cesar dove in and missed Cherundolo's long pass, Donovan held his run until on top of the keeper, blasting a point-blank shot over Handanovic. As easy a target as Landycakes is, he’s "that man" for the US yet again.
Nearly level three minutes later, only to see Onyewu inches away from a flicked-on free kick, the US turned the screws throughout the second half. Altidore remained the main threat with limited chances, but the US at least had some semblance of control on proceedings. Bradley saved his last throw of the dice for the 80th minute, bringing on Gomez for Gooch as the US upped possession, necessarily risking three at the back.
And it was his son, otherwise known as Nepotism Jr. around these parts, who found the second goal. Altidore leapt highest to knock down Donovan's deep cross and Bradley was in the right place at the right time – again – to crash home a rising shot. Say it quietly, but it definitely evoked memories of Gerrard's first in the dramatic FA Cup final against West Ham.
Three minutes later, the US had the winner. With bodies crashing to the floor around him, Edu put Donovan's free kick in the net, only to see the referee throw his hand in the air for what's still a mysterious decision. Both Bradley and Bocanegra could have had penalties of their own on the play. If Bradley was offside, he never touched the ball, which is how linesman had been deciding the 'active/inactive' law. It was completely baffling, and the main source of this strange pro-US feeling in the match report. And it was more proof that the referee was overawed by this game, with questionable calls throughout that mostly favored Slovenia. You often see invisible attacking "fouls" in the area when the referee's unsure what's happened. It shouldn’t happen in the World Cup.
Slovenia had the last two chances of the game, with the US unable to recreate earlier heroics, as Novakovic shouldered a header wide and Howard punched a dipping Radosavljevic shot away. The damage was done. Still, a lot of credit to the US for fighting back as far as they did, and credit to Bradley for making proactive changes, especially those at halftime. Too many managers give their starting side 10-15 minutes to "figure things out." The US needed to change, and change they did.
Yes, a draw doesn’t help much here, although a point’s obviously and always better than none. The US will need some results to go their way to advance. The best bet is probably hoping for England to pull themselves together and win their next two matches, while the US has to beat Algeria no matter what. That would leave England with 7, the US with 5, and Slovenia with 4.
But a draw, as well as the feeling of being shafted by the referee, helps reinstall the 'everyone's against us' mentality and restores the underdog label that the US revels in. Which means you can’t count them out.