What: US vs. Slovenia, Group C, Matchday 2
When: Friday, 10 a.m. ET
Where: Ellis Park, Johannesburg
TV: ESPN, Univisión
England are out of the way, but now comes the hard part. After earning what amounted to a dream start to the World Cup with a hard-fought draw against the Three Lions, the US are in an unfamiliar role in their second match: favorites. And that’s not all it’s cracked out to be.
Think back to big games the US was supposed to win at recent World Cups. Iran in 1998. Poland in 2002. Ghana in 2006. All three disappointing losses. Even within CONCACAF, the Americans classically have trouble with teams they’re supposed to beat. And in Slovenia they get an unpleasant taste of their own medicine: a team that is happy to absorb pressure and wait for its chances to counterattack.
But it gets more complicated. If the US can grab a win in this match, they’ll take a big step toward advancing to the knockout rounds. But if they don’t? Slovenia are in the driver’s seat of Group C after their opening win over Algeria, and it’s a pretty solid bet England will also beat the stuffing out of the Algerians later on Friday.
If the US lose this game, it’s big, big trouble. As Landon Donovan put it earlier this week, “In all likelihood, if we lose Friday, we’re out of the tournament – that’s the reality of the situation.”
Thankfully for the US, they won’t have to worry about slowing three world-beating players at once, as they did against England. That means Bob Bradley can open up his team to attack a little more, which will be a necessity given that Slovenia don’t need to go on the offensive.
Does that mean Bradley will shuffle the deck a little? It’s possible. The Michael Bradley-Ricardo Clark central midfield duo was effective in its ball-winning duties against England, but the US may need more finesse to manufacture a goal. That could open the door for a more offensive-minded central mid like José Francisco Torres or Benny Feilhaber.
Should the US need to press, Bradley can also utilize a speedy winger like Stuart Holden, or perhaps an attack-minded fullback like Jonathan Spector or Jonathan Bornstein. Up front, Bradley could replace the speedy Robbie Findley with a banger like Edson Buddle.
In any case, the challenge remains: Figure out a way to score a goal, and make sure the Slovenians don’t use the counterattack to beat the US at their own game.
There may not be a more disciplined, organized underdog at this World Cup than Matjaz Kek’s men. Slovenia allowed only four goals through 10 games of European qualifying, then famously shut down the potent Russian attack in the playoffs to earn a stunning berth in South Africa.
Slovenia hasn’t got a single star player that will bowl you over with dazzling highlight-reel moments, but they play a solid, steady game and show incredible patience – which will frustrate any team that doesn’t take them seriously.
“We are mindful of the fact that a daunting challenge lies ahead of us,” Kek said at Thursday’s prematch press conference. “We respect the United States, but we do not stand in awe of them and we are not afraid of them.”
United States: Landon Donovan. Obvious? Maybe. The all-time leading scorer in US national team history played much deeper against England, tasked with helping hold off Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. Against Slovenia, he’ll return to the offensive third. Look for him to be hungry and take chances of his own, especially in finding passing lanes against the tight Slovenians.
Slovenia: Robert Koren. The West Brom centeral midfielder isn’t only the captain. He is, as Bradley said, “the engine of their team.” In a game where everyone needs to stay compact, Slovenia will look toward their leader to stay organized.
The US didn’t need a result against England, but they got one. Now, it’s absolutely crucial they get another one. Donovan & Co. will have to push forward and take some risks, which may leave them exposed. The letdown from that England draw is also a worry, but you have to believe Bradley has kept his troops grounded enough to understand that if they win, they’ll move on. There’s no greater motivation than that.