The almost, but not quite, comeback in Johannesburg *

While most of Los Angeles slept off hangovers from celebrations of the Lakers NBA title win, the U.S. soccer team played a thrilling match starting a 7 am in Johannesburg against Slovenia, the smallest country to make the World Cup.

Slovenia started play in Group C in the lead with three points. The U.S. and England had one and Algeria had zero.

The Slovenes took a 2-0 lead in the first half on goals by Valter Birsa and Zlatkan Ljubijankic. The U.S. looked to be headed for another in a succession of disappointing performances in World Cup play, as in 1990, 1998, and 2006.

In the second half though, the Americans sprang back to life thanks to the play of L.A. Galaxy midfielder Landon Donovan.

Three minutes into the second half, Donovan took advantage of a defensive lapse by Slovenia to make a run down the right flank of the field. Facing what looked like an impossible angle, Donovan fired a shot hard and high into the top corner of the goal to bring the U.S. back to within one goal. In the video, Slovene goalie Samir Handanovic appears to turn away at the last second from Donovan's shot, which is an early candidate for Goal of the Tournament.

About eight minutes before the end of the match, Michael Bradley (son of U.S. coach Bob Bradley) tied the game on a difficult half-volley on a pass from Jozy Altidore.

The Americans appeared to take the lead in the 87th minute, when Maurice Edu put in a shot after a free kick from Donovan. But, referee Koman Coulibaly from Mali ruled that the Americans (either Edu or Carlos Bocanegra) had committed a foul. Pretty much anyone who wasn't from Slovenia (and that's all but around two million people in the world), is still trying to figure out what the call was.

Earlier in the match, Coulibaly had given a yellow card to Robbie Findley for a deliberate hand ball. Except the ball actually hit Findley in the face. The face, according to all anatomy sources I could consult, is not a hand.

Nevertheless, the game was a draw. The U.S. had but two points after two games and Slovenia had four.

Later in the day, the Americans got a gift from Algeria. Group favorite England was expected to easily handle the Algerians in a match in Cape Town. However, the game ended in a scoreless draw.

The fate of all the teams in Group C will be decided Wednesday. There will be two matches, contested simultaneously, starting at 7 am PT. The U.S. will play Algeria and England will face Slovenia. The U.S. will advance to the next round with a win over Algeria. If the Americans tie, they can still advance if Slovenia beats England or if Slovenia and England play a tie that does doesn't push England ahead of the U.S. in total goals. Presently, the U.S. has three goals and England has one, so if the U.S. and Algeria tied 1-1 and England tied 2-2, the U.S. would still advance. (Or read this guy, I've been told he knows more about such stuff. The same guy's details an scarier scenario.)

Don't count on the Americans playing a scoreless draw with Algeria. After Slovenia's first goal, ESPN came up with a stat that the U.S. had given up at least one goal in 18 consecutive World Cup matches. The last U.S. shutout came in 1950, a 1-0 win over England.

Mexico, which may have more total supporters in Southern California than the U.S., has a much simpler path to the second round. Thursday night in Polokwane, Mexico shut out a dispirited and disorganized French team, 2-0. Mexico finishes up group play on Tuesday in Rustenburg against Uruguay. Mexico and Uruguay would both advance with a tie.

Another team with a considerable following in Los Angeles, South Korea, is 1-1 after two matches, with a 2-0 win over Greece, followed by a 4-1 pasting by Argentina. South Korea can still advance with a win over Nigeria on Tuesday in Durban, as long as Greece doesn't beat Argentina by a bigger margin. If South Korea and Nigeria draw, the South Koreans will move on as long as Greece either loses or draws with Argentina. A South Korea-Mexico matchup in the second round is quite possible.

The second set of matches at the World Cup have had far more action than the opening round. Teams are much more willing to go on the attack. The U.S.-Slovenia match was probably the most exciting one so far in the tournament. And not many soccer observers anywhere in the world would be going out of their way to look forward to that matchup.

By the time most of you have read this, Japan and the Netherlands would have already finished their match in Group E. (The Dutch won 1-0.) If you get up around 7 am on a Saturday, you are ready to watch Ghana play Australia in Group D. If Ghana wins, they would be atop the group. Serbia upset Germany 1-0 on Thursday in the other match. Teams from Group C and Group D face each other in the second round.

So, the United States could likely face Ghana, Germany, or Serbia in the second round. That is, if the United States can beat Algeria.

In the last couple of years, the U.S. team has shown that it has the ability to make its fans ooh and aah mixed with several bouts of pounding their heads against a wall in frustration and/or anger. If you get the chance to watch on Wednesday, prepare yourself for a roller coaster ride.

Finally, if you are so interested, there is a contest where you can win a free trip to Rio de Janeiro for a week if you can correctly name who will score the 54th overall goal of the tournament. It is sponsored by the Brazilian Sugarcane Association and it picked the number 54 because that is the cents per gallon tariff that the U.S. charges on imported ethanol. (There have been 43 goals scored so far as I type this.) This is apparently a legitimate contest. And I've always been waiting for the perfect opportunity to mix tariff reform with my soccer viewing.

Excuse me, I've got a Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States to go study up on.

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