Complacency is the U.S.'s challenge
PRETORIA, South Africa -- The U.S. passed all manner of exams against England this past weekend. But to prevail against Slovenia on Friday will require the U.S. to ace World Cup Psychology 101.
The mental challenges are numerous, but the first hurdle facing the U.S. is putting Saturday's memorable 1-1 tie with England in its proper perspective. Although the Americans did garner a valuable point, the result didn't do that much to change the dynamics of Group C. For the U.S., progressing to the second round always required taking points off Slovenia and Algeria, and that means letting go of any giddiness that the England result created. Fortunately for the U.S. team, that appears to have already taken place.
"It's not like we were popping champagne after the [England] game," midfielder Landon Donovan said Tuesday. "Guys were satisfied with the point, but nobody was ecstatic. We've got a lot of guys now who understand what is going on. As much as was made of the England game, we knew that was just the start of the tournament, so we understand what Friday is all about."
The obstacles only grow from there. For perhaps the first time in its World Cup history, the U.S. finds itself tagged as a favorite. Anyone who witnessed the team's long, hard slog through qualifying would agree that this is a label the U.S. rarely has worn well. On Saturday against England, the Americans had nothing to lose. The pressure will be ratcheted up considerably against Slovenia.
"Instead of saying, 'Let's go out and try our best and make sure we work well together and see what happens,' as far as England was concerned now [people] are going to expect more," defender Jay DeMerit said. "But I also think we need to use that as a positive to say we should expect more as a team, as well."
Meeting those expectations could prove difficult against a Slovenia side for which the term "ambush" was invented. The Green Dragons have made a living by taking down higher-rated opponents despite having a roster without star players. Contrast this with the star-studded lineup fielded by England, and it's easy to see how complacency can begin to set in among the U.S. players.
Will the stakes prove to be enough to fire up the team?
DeMerit said, "I think teams like [Slovenia] can be very dangerous because you don't have the major superstars that you can really get yourself up for to say, 'If I stop him or I do that job, then I'll have success.'
"But there's no reason to come to tournaments like this and get results like we got on Saturday and not put in a good performance against Slovenia," DeMerit continued, "because that takes it completely away. It makes all the hard work and all the fight and the whole performance against England not worthwhile."
There are tactical challenges, as well. Slovenia is a team perfectly content to sit back, lull teams to sleep and pounce on what few opportunities it gets. Its opening 1-0 victory over Algeria was a prime example of this. For the most part, Algeria looked the better side, only for Slovenia's Robert Koren -- no doubt aided by Faouzi Chaouchi's shoddy goalkeeping -- to slot home the game winner.
Yet the U.S. isn't without some psychological advantages. The experience the team gained at last year's Confederations Cup showed the Americans how quickly fortunes can change in the group stage of a tournament. The importance of every game -- whether it involves the U.S. or not -- was driven home, as well.
"I think what might help in this psychologically is that Slovenia won [its first game]," U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra said. "Now we cannot lose this game, or it's going to be very difficult to qualify for the second round. We're going in with the mindset that if we lose, we're out, because we're expecting England to take the next six points out of their games."
It's the job of leaders such as Bocanegra to drive that message home. The U.S.'s position, he says, is reminiscent of at the last World Cup. Clearly, the mood of the team is different, given that four years ago the Americans were coming off a 3-0 hammering at the hands of the Czech Republic. Yet the stakes the second game holds are much the same. Four years ago, the U.S. played eventual champion Italy to a 1-1 tie, which kept alive its hopes of reaching the second round.
"We can't have that little letdown," Bocanegra said. "Collectively, as a group, we understand that."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.