U.S. takes on no small task
JOHANNESBURG Their media information packet has a five-word motto on the cover that embodies their team spirit: Never Judge Greatness by Size.
Slovenia, the smallest nation in the World Cup with a population of two million, is playing the United States, the largest nation in the tournament (310 million) this morning, and the Slovenians are determined to squash any notion that things are about to get easier for the Americans after a 1-1 tie against England.
Slovenia beat Algeria in its first game and has loftier goals. Known more for Alpine sports and gymnastics, Slovenia was a surprise qualifier from Europe after upsetting Russia in a playoff. A victory over the United States and Slovenia clinches a spot in the second round. The U.S. team would be mathematically eliminated from the tournament with a loss. A tie keeps the Americans in contention, and a victory puts them in the driver’s seat heading into the final group match against Algeria.
“We are the smallest country, but we haven’t come here as tourists,” Slovenia coach Matjaz Kek said Thursday night. “We do respect the U.S. players. Their performance last year at the Confederations Cup was excellent. But we do not stand in awe of them. We are not afraid of them.”
With a victory and three points in hand, Slovenia doesn’t have to go for broke against the Americans. It could accept a tie, which means it might hang back and make things difficult for the U.S. attack. Slovenia is known for its compact, organized defense, the type of opponent that traditionally gives the U.S. team trouble.
The United States is 0-5 against Eastern European teams in World Cups since 1990 and has been outscored 13-2. Although this is a different group of players, the statistic cannot be ignored.
“Slovenia isn’t going to be spectacular, but they’re going to be a good, solid team, and they’re going to be difficult to beat,” U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan said. “In theory, it seems easier because they don’t have a Wayne Rooney or a Frank Lampard or a Steven Gerrard. The reality is, when you have a team that plays well together, it becomes very difficult to beat a team like that.
“When a team is organized like that, at some point you have to take some risks if you want to score. Certainly, part of that is getting our outside backs involved. And then another big part of the game is set pieces and how we do with our deliveries and how we are in front of goal when we get chances.”
Slovenia’s biggest target is Milivoje Novakovic, who is a predator inside the box. Zlatko Dedic is a high-energy player whom U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said reminds him of Argentina’s Carlos Tevez. Robert Koren plays in England for West Brom, and most plays go through him.
U.S. coach Bob Bradley has been doing his homework on Slovenia since the draw in December.
“Robert Koren as captain and a midfielder is the engine of their team,” Bradley said. “Novakovic is a player who, even as a tall player, has a creative side where he comes underneath and handles the ball and brings other people into the game. You pay attention to the little details, and then you understand how they play as a team, which is well-organized.”
“They do a good job of staying very tight and moving as a unit. But we’ve been in many of these types of games before, against teams that play in a similar way. Where you expect the game to be a tactical game, but you look for ways to get an edge. Now we look forward to this one.”
Although most Americans have probably never heard of the Slovenian players, U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra said the team has the upmost respect for its opponent and expects a scrappy game against a team that, in many ways, mirrors the Americans.
An ‘important game’
“We’re not going to go into it taking anybody lightly just because the rest of the world doesn’t know their names,” Bocanegra said. “It’s an important game for us.”
Four years ago, the U.S. team was bounced from the World Cup in the first round. Donovan has been waiting to make up for that bitter experience.
“I’ve always said, especially after last year, that we can compete with any team in the world, and we believe that,” Donovan said. “What makes teams great is doing it three, four, five, six, seven times in a row.
“We haven’t proven that we can do that yet. That’s what we need to prove this time, and we have a chance on Friday.”