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U.S. Draw With Slovenia a Ratings Header for ESPN

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The United States’ thrilling comeback “win” over Slovenia on Friday drew 5.2 million viewers to ESPN Friday morning (June 18), making it the third most-watched World Cup telecast in the network’s history.

Per Nielsen, only the Germany-Italy semi on July 4, 2006, (5.85 million viewers) and the USA-Germany quarterfinal on June 21, 2002, (5.34 million) drew a bigger crowd than Team USA’s second match of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Midfielder Landon Donovan fired a roof shot in the 48th minute and Michael Bradley scored the equalizer with eight minutes left in regulation to give the US national team a 2-2 tie with its Group C opponent. But the American attack wasn’t entirely finished.

Four minutes after Bradley drove his 8-yard shot into the back of the net, Maurice Edu scored the go-ahead goal, capping the greatest comeback in US World Cup history. Unfortunately for the Yanks, referee Koman Coulibaly of Mali called a phantom foul, negating the goal and robbing the US of three points in the Group C standings.

ESPN deconstructed the moments leading up to Edu’s disallowed goal like the Warren Commission reviewing the Zapruder film and at no point did evidence of a USA foul appear on the screen. The network’s team of analysts was fit to be tied, as it were. Former U.S. national squad member Alexi Lalas called Coulibaly’s call “a disgrace” and “ridiculous,” adding that the referee had “been making bad calls all night.”

It wasn’t just the homers who were seething. Self-professed “neutral Englishman” Ian Darke told viewers that he “could not believe the call,” adding that it was “a complete nightmare.” Earlier in the match, a blown call regarding a perceived hand ball that led to Robbie Findley picking up his second yellow card provoked Darke to proclaim Coulibaly’s judgment “one of the stupidest decisions I have ever seen.” Throughout the weekend, similar discontent was registered by studio analysts Steve McManaman and Juergen Klinsmann.

San Diego led all local markets, delivering an 8.5 overnight, rather impressive given the 7 a.m. PDT starting time. Washington, D.C., (6.4) and Miami (6.2) finished second and third.

Through Friday, ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 are averaging 2.95 million viewers for their blanket coverage of the 2010 World Cup, up 71 percent from 1.7 million viewers four years ago.

Heading into the tail end of the Group Stage, Univision is also on a torrid pace. On Thursday, the Spanish-language network set a record for its all-time biggest World Cup delivery, as the Mexico-France match drew 5.79 million viewers, of which 3.41 million were members of the 18-49 demo.

Univision’s broadcast of Mexico’s 2-0 victory out-matched ESPN2’s delivery (2.24 million) by 159 percent.

Through June 19, Univision’s World Cup coverage has averaged 2.31 million viewers and 1.34 million adults 18-49, out-distancing its performance of four years ago by 13 percent and 7 percent, respectively.