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On soccer

Americans not taking it easy

By John Powers
Globe Staff / June 19, 2010

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So the high-wire act continues. The United States soccer team was 42 minutes from what could have been an early checkout from both their hotel and the World Cup yesterday, down two goals to the smallest country in the 32-team field. Normally that’s fatal on the global stage but not for the Yanks, who’ve made a fetish of padlocking themselves into a straitjacket upside down like Houdini, then slipping free.

“My guess is there’s not many teams in this tournament that could have done what we did,’’ declared Landon Donovan, after he and Michael Bradley had brought their playmates back from Zombieland to a 2-2 draw with Slovenia in Johannesburg and kept them among the living for at least another four days.

Not many teams would have needed to do it that way, but the Americans seem to have a genetic aversion to scoring first. In their last six Cup matches dating to the 2002 quarterfinal with Germany, they’ve spotted their opponents the first goal. The record: three losses, three draws. In fact, the US team never has won a Cup match (as in 0-15-4) when it hasn’t been on the board first.

“We can’t keep putting ourselves in holes like this,’’ conceded Donovan, whose colleagues have only 2 points from two matches going into Wednesday’s group finale with Algeria, but still are very much in contention after England yesterday staggered to a scoreless draw with Les Fennecs (The Desert Foxes). That said, what the Yanks did yesterday was a minor miracle against a Slovenian side that would have advanced with a victory. And if referee Koman Coulibaly hadn’t nullified Maurice Edu’s 86th-minute goal for an apparent but unspecified foul in the area, the United States would have snatched a most unlikely 3 points and be sitting atop the four-team group.

They’re still better off than the wretched English, who were booed off the field by their own fans in Cape Town. “Toothless, clueless . . .,’’ the Daily Mail fumed. All the Americans have to do now is beat the Algerians and they’ll advance. Such is the benefit from one of the rare times that Uncle Sam’s nephews have been drawn into an eminently survivable group. In 1998, they opened with the Germans, then played politically charged matches with Iran and Yugoslavia (i.e. Serbia). In 2002, they faced Portugal and host South Korea. Last time, it was the Czech Republic, eventual champion Italy, and Ghana.

Though few observers had the US team beating England this time, the other two matches figured to be clearly winnable, especially after the Americans snatched a point from the English last weekend. Not that they were expecting a walkover against Slovenia, which won a playoff with Russia to qualify and had blanked the Algerians in their opener. The Slovenes are organized, disciplined, and physical, and if you leave them unmarked in open space, they will hurt you.

Which is exactly what they did yesterday. Valter Birsa boomed one past a freeze-framed Tim Howard in the 13th minute and Zlatan Ljubijankic broke in alone for another in the 42d. We’ve seen this movie before. In “The Mouse That Roared,’’ an imaginary Alpine country (the Duchy of Grand Fenwick) brashly declares war on the United States, hoping to be crushed and receive massive aid from Washington, but inadvertently ends up winning.

Slovenia is indeed small and mountainous, but its soccer team is a bunch of Little Big Men. What the Green Dragons knew about the Americans is that their defense can be broken down and broken down early. England did it in the fourth minute and the United States needed a one-in-a-thousand clanker by goalkeeper Robert Green to draw even.

What the Slovenes also now know about the Yanks is that they’re at their most dangerous when they’re most desperate. In their best match in the last Cup, the 1-1 draw with the Italians, they played the final 43 minutes with only nine men. The Bradley Bunch were desperate again yesterday, since a loss almost certainly would have finished them. So they did what your under-10 town team does when it needs a couple of big goals. They went to their best player and to the coach’s kid, and escaped with a life-saving point.

Just after intermission Donovan mesmerized the Slovenes, walking toward the goal as if he were on a pre-dinner stroll, then roofing the ball above astounded keeper Samir Handanovic. Then, with the clock down to the final eight minutes, here came Bradley dashing on to a loose ball for a fantastic finish.

“This team still understands how to fight for 90 minutes,’’ observed proud dad Bob Bradley. “This is something we’ve seen time and time again.’’

More often than we would have preferred. High-wire acts are thrilling but the actuarial tables say there are safer ways to make a living. Next time, Donovan & Co. might want to score first, just for the novelty of it.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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