JOHANNESBURG -- Surely the players on the U.S. national team know that had they not started the game so tentatively, not allowed Slovenia to dictate play in the first half and not fallen behind by two goals, the referee would never have been in position to play such a pivotal role in the outcome.
But in the heat of the moment, indignance is far easier to muster than perspective, and there was a good deal of that, plus genuine bewilderment, following Friday's controversial 2-2 draw with Slovenia at Ellis Park.
The play should have been the stunning punctuation to a historic comeback. The tying goal, courtesy of an alert toe-poke from midfielder Michael Bradley in the 82nd minute, not only leveled the score but made a third strike seem almost inevitable. The U.S. was playing at a different gear than the under-siege Slovenians, and appeared to snatch the dramatic game-winner just three minutes later.
Video: Michael Bradley's Equalizer | Koman Coulibaly's Wikipedia Page Defaced
Landon Donovan struggled on his free kicks and corner kicks throughout the game, but his delivery from the right wing late in the 85th minute was perfect. It curled behind the Slovenian defense, dipped and was met perfectly by halftime substitute Maurice Edu, who volleyed the ball high into the net. Edu was just about the only American player who wasn't tackled on the play. Bradley and Jozy Altidore were wrapped up tight, and Carlos Bocanegra was felled in the penalty area behind them.
But the celebration was cut short. No goal. Referee Koman Coulibaly, a Malian officiating his first ever World Cup match, waived the play dead and gave Slovenia a free kick. The TV feed originally indicated that there was an offside infraction -- but none was visible on replay. Bradley was the furthest player forward and clearly was kept onside by Slovenian goal scorer Valter Birsa. The FIFA play-by-play claimed it was a foul on Maurice Edu. But the former Maryland Terrapin was the only one running free and he clearly raced through the entire Slovenian defense without touching a soul.
Coulibaly's call was and will remain a mystery. There has been no explanation. What it means is that the U.S. has two points instead of four, and could face a couple of nightmarish tie-breaking scenarios in its quest to make the World Cup's round of 16.
U.S. coach Bob Bradley and his players had two issues after the game, the call itself and the lack of communication. Coulibaly apparently ignored American requests for an explanation or even an indication of what infraction had been called. Donovan said he was afraid that Coulibaly may not even speak English, although he surely could have figured out what was going on when both Donovan and Bradley approached him after the play. The referee simply turned away.
Needless to say, the call was a hot topic at both the postgame press conference with Bob Bradley and Donovan and in the players' mixed zone, where they answered questions from the media. Here are the reactions, and it's clear that anger is tempered by relief. The U.S. is still alive in the World Cup.
Bob Bradley: "I've heard a few things about the disallowed goal. Honest, I think on the set piece most of what took place was Slovenia players holding our players. One theory is that a Slovenia player had his arms around Michael and he tried to get loose and was called. I haven't seen the incident [on replay yet] but from what I've heard, there were three fouls in the box, all from Slovenia players."
Landon Donovan: "I'm assuming it was a foul somewhere. It certainly wasn't offside. We asked the referee to explain his call several times, but he refused. I just saw a normal free kick and a goal. I don't know how much English he speaks, but we asked him numerous times in a non-confrontational manner but he just ignored us, or maybe he just didn't understand.
"Rarely do our guys grab ahold [of a defender]. Our guys were trying to get to the ball to score. So, I find it a little hard to believe we would have fouled someone but, without looking at it, I'm not sure.
"We knew coming into the game that it was this guy's first match in a World Cup. So like anybody who's involved in a World Cup for the first time, there's going to be, probably, some learning curves. I think if you ask him he'd say it probably wasn't his best night, but overall I thought he did OK."
U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati: "I didn't see a foul. I haven't seen the replay. I have 43 texts from people who did. They didn't see a foul either. We'll ask [for an explanation], but they're not required to tell us. Some of the players said they asked and they didn't get a response. But he's not required to tell them what foul he called."
Clint Dempsey: "To be fair, I think we should have won the game. That last goal, I don't know what the call was on that. ... No idea [what the foul was]. I have no idea. The ref didn't say nothing all game ... That's something you'll have to ask the ref. If there's any way you can figure that out, I'd like to know. That would be a good question."
Michael Bradley: "I have no comment about that play. There's no point in talking about it."
Maurice Edu: "I don't really know what the call was. I didn't see anything wrong. It's what I thought was a goal."
Benny Feilhaber: "The thing with the third goal, we can't do anything about it. That's not in our hands. So we're really happy with what we accomplished in the second half."
Tim Howard: "You know what? I didn't even see it right. There were so many mix-ups in there and there were a lot of fouls called, I felt like against us, in the attacking box, and then I realized how up in arms all the guys were at the end.
"I struggle to find a reason to feel hard done by, and a lot of the guys do [have a reason]. I'm happy going into this match against Algeria feeling like we need to win. And we will win."