By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 19, 2010; D01
JOHANNESBURG -- Maurice Edu's volley splashed into Slovenia's net in the 85th minute Friday, and for an instant, the U.S. national soccer team believed it had punctuated an epic comeback with a late go-ahead strike.
But amid the bedlam that erupted at Ellis Park, referee Koman Coulibaly nullified the goal. The assistant referee had not raised his flag to signal an offside call. TV replays from every conceivable angle offered few clues. According to the U.S. players, Coulibaly declined to offer an explanation. Somewhere in the mass of players storming the six-yard box, he had spotted a foul.
And just like that, controversy and fury had taken hold of an otherwise unremarkable World Cup.
On a call that will be reviewed, examined, scrutinized, second-guessed and analyzed for weeks, if not years, to come, Coulibaly waved off Edu's apparent goal, leaving the exhausted teams locked in a 2-2 draw in front of a pro-American crowd of 45,573.
"I was overwhelmed with emotion at that point, pure excitement, full of joy, and then disappointment," said Edu, a former University of Maryland midfielder. "I thought that was the moment that we won the game, and then in a matter of seconds, it all changed."
Coulibaly's decision changed the course of the gripping match, slowed the Americans' march to the tournament's round of 16 and contributed to the chaos in Group C heading into the final two matches Wednesday.
With a victory over Algeria (0-1-1) in Pretoria, the United States (0-0-2) will secure passage. It can also advance with a tie if England -- also 0-0-2 but with fewer goals scored -- loses to Slovenia (1-0-1) or earns a tie but fails to erase the Americans' two-goal edge in overall tournament scoring.
Friday's match will be remembered most for the contentious ending. But it will also be remembered for the United States conceding another early goal and for Slovenia, the third-smallest nation ever to compete in a World Cup, extending the lead just before halftime.
It will be remembered for career scoring leader Landon Donovan inspiring the uprising after the break with a marvelous display of ball distribution in the run of play and on set pieces.
Despite the result, "It's still a point that gets us closer to where we want to be," said Donovan, who scored in the 48th minute, helped set up Michael Bradley's equalizer in the 82nd and served the free kick that led to Edu's disallowed goal.
It marked just the fourth time in U.S. history that the national team had earned a point after trailing by two goals at the half (1-30-3).
Said goalkeeper Tim Howard, "I feel fortunate to come out of it, still alive to go through" to the round of 16.
The comeback overshadowed another troubling start. Six days after conceding a goal in the fourth minute of the 1-1 tie with England, the Americans fell behind in the 13th.
Valter Birsa settled into a roomy pocket behind Bradley about 30 yards from the target. Jose Torres didn't provide cover, allowing Birsa to line up a left-footed shot from 26 yards. Howard didn't bother to move. The ball settled into the right side of the net.
"It was like a free kick with no wall," U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra said.
Against England, the Americans were bailed out by a goalkeeping blunder. On this day, Slovenia goalie Samir Handanovic pushed out Donovan's dangerous free kick and Torres's curving free kick.
With U.S. pressure mounting, a goal seemed inevitable before the half -- only it was Slovenia that struck. On a fluid counterattack, Zlatan Ljubijankic timed his run perfectly. Milivoje Novakovic delivered the ball. The Americans pleaded for an offside call, but with Ljubijankic even with center back Oguchi Onyewu, play was rightfully allowed to continue.
Howard charged, but Ljubijankic calmly placed a low shot past the desperate keeper.
At halftime, "guys were mad," Bocanegra said, "and you saw our response."
Three minutes after the break, Steve Cherundolo served a long ball on the right side. The defender slipped, allowing Donovan a free run into the box. After surveying his options, he cracked a six-yard shot with such power that the helpless Handanovic ducked for self-preservation as the ball crashed into the roof of the net.
Slovenia withstood the rush, regaining possession and slowing the pace, but the Americans stirred again. Gallant as they were, however, the Americans were running out of time.
In the 82nd, Jozy Altidore headed Donovan's long ball into the path of Bradley, who stabbed an eight-yard shot over Handanovic, unleashing a torrent of emotion on the field, along the sideline and in the stands.
Bradley described the build-up as "a great play by Jozy. I was just trying to catch up."
Then came the controversy. With at least two U.S. players being held in the box as Donovan drove in his free kick, Coulibaly's whistle sounded.
There was still ample time remaining. Slovenia probed for the game-winner, testing Howard twice. Three minutes were added, but nothing was settled -- particularly the debate about the nullified goal.
"I thought it was a clean goal," Altidore said. "I was under the impression we won the game. But these things happen. Nothing you can do."