JOHANNESBURG -- Maurice Edu kicked the ball into the net just before the 86th minute. American players jumped around wildly, thinking they had capped a historic comeback, turning a two-goal, first-half deficit into a 3-2 victory over Slovenia.
"Then I heard the whistle," Edu said.
Referee Koman Coulibaly of Mali had called it off.
Over and over, American players asked, "Why?"
In English. Then in French.
"He just ignored us," Landon Donovan said. "Or he didn't understand."
Perhaps Coulibaly will never explain himself. Perhaps it will remain one of those unsolved soccer mysteries.
What's known is this: Donovan and Michael Bradley scored second-half goals that did count, and U.S. hopes to reach the World Cup's second round remained alive with a 2-2 tie Friday night.
Now it comes down to Wednesday's match against Algeria.
"My guess is there's not many teams in this tournament that could have done what we did and arguably won the game. And that is what the American spirit is about," Donovan said. "And I'm sure people back home are proud of that."
Slovenia (1-0-1) leads Group C with four points and would have qualified for the second round with a win. The U.S. and England (both 0-0-2) are tied for second with two points each following England's 0-0 draw with Algeria (0-0-1).
The top two teams in the group advance, so the U.S. would make the second round with a victory against Algeria, The Americans also could advance if they tie the Algerians while England draws Slovenia, provided the U.S. maintains its advantage in goals scored over the English, currently 3-1.
"We can still get through," goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "Being down 2-0 in a game, I've played long enough to feel very lucky and fortunate to come out of it still in the World Cup."
If not for the whistle, it would have gone down as the greatest comeback win in American soccer history. Donovan took a free kick from the side of the penalty area as players jostled in front. Aleksandar Radosavljevic held Michael Bradley in a bear hug, and Edu spun away from Bojan Jokic and, one step into the 6-yard box, stuck out his left foot and put the ball in.
Coulibaly, working his first World Cup game, will be remembered for the second bad call for American sports fans in a month, following umpire Jim Joyce's decision that cost Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game.
"What I've heard is that there were three fouls in the box, and all of which were against Slovenia players," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said.
Referees must submit a written report to FIFA after each match, but it is not specified in the rule that he must fully explain a ruling such as this.
FIFA refereeing rules state: "The referee shall hand over to the FIFA general coordinator a match report at the stadium immediately after the match. On the report form the referee shall note all occurrences such as misconduct of players leading to caution or expulsion, unsporting behavior by supporters and/or by officials or any other person acting on behalf of an association at the match and any other incident happening before, during and after the match in as much detail as possible."
Slovenia, the smallest of the 32 nations in the tournament, had two shots on goal in the first half and scored on both.
The Green Dragons went ahead when Valter Birsa got behind Bradley and the defense, found 5 yards of space and from about 28 yards caught Howard flat-footed. The goalkeeper was screened by defender Oguchi Onyewu, who slid across to deny Birsa the right side of the goal. The ball sailed past Howard and went in.
"I just lost sight of it," Howard said.
The U.S. nearly tied it when Clint Dempsey crossed toward Donovan inside the 6-yard box. But as Donovan was about to redirect the ball into the goal, Miso Brecko made a sliding deflection to knock it away. Donovan skidded into the goal without the ball, and several American players put their hands on their heads in frustration.
On the counterattack, Zlatan Ljubijankic ran up the middle, took a pass and sent an 8-yard right-footed shot under Howard.
A pro-American crowd of 45,583 at Ellis Park that had been chanting "U-S-A!" was silenced. Frustration showed when Donovan, wanting to take a free kick, shoved Jose Torres, who had the ball. Torres, a 22-year-old midfielder, started in place of the more defensive Ricardo Clark.
"Jose's a young kid who is playing in his first World Cup game," Donovan said. "It's just an emotional game, and at the moment I wanted to let him know what I needed to tell him."
American players retreated to their locker room and talked of a need to regroup.
"This group will never be together again," was how defender Jay DeMerit remembered the discussion. "We just said, if we're going to go down, we go down swinging."
Bob Bradley made two lineup changes at halftime, inserting Benny Feilhaber and Edu for Torres and forward Robbie Findley, who received his second yellow card of the tournament for a handball in the 40th and will be suspended for the Algeria game. Dempsey pushed up from midfield to forward.
Donovan started the comeback in the 48th minute when he ran onto a Steve Cherundolo pass from midfield and got by Bostjan Cesar, a defender who fell down and then unsuccessfully chased after him. Donovan originally planned to cross, but came down the end line and shot from the 6-yard box, putting the ball over goalkeeper Samir Handanovic and into the roof of the net.
It was the third World Cup goal for Donovan, his first since 2002, and his record 43rd for the national team.
"I decided to take a touch and aim high -- and aim at his head," Donovan said. And I don't think he wanted to get hit from there."
Michael Bradley, the coach's son, tied the score in the 82nd, when Jozy Altidore's header off Donovan's free kick fell in the middle of the penalty area. Running at full speed, Bradley caught up to it about 8 yards from goal and with his right foot tapped it over Handanovic's head.
"That's Mikey. He was pretty energetic at halftime," Howard said. "He wanted the talk … to stop and to put our money where our mouths are. He did a good job of being an example of that."
Slovenia coach Matjaz Kek talked about his team losing it's concentration in the second half and how the Americans benefited from it. "We were ahead of the United States, but we didn't overcome this pressure," he said.
It was almost the first come-from-behind win for the Americans in World Cup play. The United States is 6-16-5 in the World Cup, never falling behind in its victories. That would have changed, if not for what the U.S. believes was a phantom foul.
"I haven't seen the replay, but I've had 43 text messages from people who did, and they didn't see a foul, either," U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said.
During the last week, U.S. players said this wasn't so much a "must-win game" as a "can't-lose" match.
That changes against Algeria.
"Now we have to win," Donovan said. "Period. End of story."