U.S. troubles go beyond bad call

SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- Koman Coulibaly's phantom call to deprive the U.S of a late Maurice Edu winner might have dominated Friday's coverage of the World Cup, but it was the hardly only topic of conversation among hard-core American fans.

Terry Chu and Shuhei Itabashi, who became friends in college and have followed the U.S. team around the world, were among those who packed Santa Monica's legendary Cock 'N Bull British Pub for the Yanks' 2-2 draw with Slovenia. They joined the chorus of abuse after the Malian referee's "robbery," but it's the Americans' static first-half performance, their tendency to fall behind early and the naivete of their tactics that concerned these two more.

And, to be sure, Wednesday's game against Algeria, to determine a round-of-16 berth, is far more important than what occurred at Ellis Park in Johannesburg.

"It was a horrible first half, and the U.S. did what they always do: come out strong for the second half," said Chu, 33 and from Studio City. "They came out fighting and did what they needed to do, and they almost got the win. They should have got the win.

"It was a bad call, but we take the point, and we've got to get a win versus Algeria."

The Americans -- after England's scoreless draw with Algeria -- control their fate. Beat the underdog Algerians on Wednesday, and they're in the last 16. Tie Algeria, and they still would advance if Slovenia defeats England or plays the group favorite to a low-scoring tie.

In last weekend's draw with England and in Friday's game against Slovenia, the U.S. has frustrated and delighted fans, but the consistent arcs of the Yanks' performances -- start slowly, fall behind, react and recover, come back -- have been dismaying. Chu and Itabashi, who were classmates at the University of Illinois, want to see better intensity to start the game and smarter tactics at play.

"I'd like to see better communication on the back line -- let's try not to get [goalkeeper] Tim Howard mad," said Itabashi, 31, of Santa Monica. "And I don't like the long balls we're trying to do. It's, like, kick the ball and cross your fingers. That just gets you so far."

Said Chu: "We've just got to come out strong. No more nervousness, no more tentativeness. Give [teammates] some options. When your back line has the ball, somebody has got to come back and give them an option to pass. You can't just, like, wait for the ball and hopefully they lob it [to you]. You can't have four guys waiting at the top. You can get lucky with that, but I don't think it works as a strategy."

Other problems: The U.S. spacing was poor in the first half, enabling Slovenia to keep possession and exploit openings. Off-the-ball movement was inadequate, and the Americans couldn't connect or put real pressure on the Slovene defense. It was similar early against England, and both opponents took advantage for early leads.

Steven Gerrard did the damage in the opener, slipping unnoticed into the U.S. box to finish in the fourth minute, a goal answered only by England goalkeeper Robert Green's ineptitude near the end of the first half. On Friday, Valter Birsa was left alone outside the box in the 13th minute, blasting past Howard -- the keeper said he never saw the shot -- to give Slovenia the advantage. The Slovenes had a deserved 2-0 lead by halftime.

The second half was a different game. Landon Donovan, ineffective in the first half, took over, scoring a superb goal in the 48th minute, willing the U.S. into control of the match, then sending in crosses that led to Michael Bradley's 82nd-minute equalizer and Edu's would-be winner four minutes later.

"We did the typical USA, where we come back strong and hard in the second half," said Itabashi, who followed the U.S. to Germany for the 2006 World Cup. "Donovan's goal [swung the momentum] to the U.S., and Michael Bradley was at the right place at the right time, an excellent finish. That [infraction] we got called for: I don't understand who got called for what."

Chu agrees.

"Generally, the officiating has been really good this tournament, amazingly good this tournament, especially compared to 2002, when everything was a travesty," said Chu, who was in Japan for the World Cup eight years ago. "We just happened to get a bad ref."

The effect was similar to the finish against England, when Jozy Altidore came so close to giving the Americans victory: To come back was rewarding, not to win disappointing. Or you can look back to last year.

"It's been the exact same way," Chu said, "as with the Confederations Cup last summer," when the U.S. bounced back from two defeats to beat European champion Spain and take a 2-0 lead against Brazil in the final. "A horrible start, a horrible second game, a great third game where we got some luck on the same night [to advance to the final four]. And they repeat the same thing this year.

"At the half, it looks like Bob Bradley is going to lose his job again, like he was last summer, but somehow they pull it off, things are looking good again, and we're all rosy and positive [heading into] the next game."

Chu said he felt "happy but robbed," that "to come back after being down 2-nil is amazing, especially against a team like Slovenia, that's that defensively organized."

"If that play had never happened," Itabashi added, "I'd be a lot more … I don't know if happy, but I'd be more 'All right, we can do this.' The momentum was completely the U.S.'s, we had it, it was a sweet goal."

Said Chu: "There's so much karma in the game. We got lucky with [Clint Dempsey's goal against England], and it gets canceled out. That's how soccer is."

And so, onward to Pretoria, where Algeria awaits.

"We need to come out strong, play positive, be patient, like we did the second half [against Slovenia], like we did [in the last domestic tuneup] against Turkey," Chu said. "That's how you score goals and win."

Scott French writes the "Football Futbol Soccer" blog for ESPNLosAngeles.com.