JOHANNESBURG — All of a sudden, they’ve become a side no one wants to face. You’re a classic footballing nation? Count these giant-killers out at your own risk.
Their strengths? As US captain Carlos Bocanegra says, they’re “compact defensively,” they “play as a team” and “very good on the counter.”
Of course, we’re not talking about the US. We’re talking about the team they’re facing on Friday in their second game of the World Cup: Slovenia.
Two weeks ago, MLSsoccer.com waxed philosophical about how similar the Slovenians are to the Americans: limited on star power, but a side that can cause problems for anyone. There are even parallels with the personnel on hand. And the players and coaches tend to agree.
“They have some good technical players as well,” Bocanegra added. “It’s a similar team to us, actually.”
It’s a weird place for the US to be: favored, for one, but also playing a team that can sit back, absorb pressure, then attack when given the opportunities.
“There’s nothing flashy about them,” said Landon Donovan on Tuesday. “It’s not a few players like England where you have to 100 percent stop them or you’re in trouble. But they seem to be a very good team overall, they seem like they have good chemistry, they seem like they know each other well.”
Slovenia are indeed a well-oiled, unified team with a coach, Matjaz Kek, who preaches preparation, defense, communication and waiting for opportunities. On a good day, they can shock the very best by simply frustrating them, as they did against Russia in the playoffs of European qualifying.
And that may be trouble. The US are going to have to put together another cohesive effort to get past the plucky Slovenians, which means taking a few more risks on offense but being careful not to turn the ball over on the counterattack.
“That could be their way to try and win the game,” warned midfielder Benny Feilhaber. “It’s typically the way we play. They might want a draw more than we do. So they might play more defensively and look for the counterattack.”
The US are confident they can win the match, but they’re also careful not to underestimate a group whose experiences mirror their own.
“Obviously, they’ve played a lot of games together,” Donovan said. “They played difficult European qualifying and they came out of it. They’re not going to be spectacular, but they’re going to be a very solid team, and they’ll be difficult to beat.”