U.S. faces tough task against Slovenia
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Beware the Green Dragons.
The U.S. men's national team will take on Slovenia on Friday in its second World Cup encounter. It's a match that has "trap game" written all over it.
With the U.S.' encouraging 1-1 tie with England, the temptation for the Americans is to think that their toughest game is behind them. And given the modest pedigree of the opponent, the U.S. is -- for the first time in its World Cup history -- considered the favorite.
Fair enough. But Slovenia represents the kind of opponent that has long been the Americans' nemesis.
Slovenia has enough size and strength to match up with the U.S. physically and has plenty of skill. The team also has the kind of organized defense that, historically, the Americans have struggled to break down. Throw in Slovenia's counterattack, which borders on lethal, and you have an opponent that stacks up against the U.S. very well, despite its lack of stars.
"[Slovenia] aren'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."
Of course, the U.S. has long thrived on a similar set of attributes. That means there is some question as to which team will try to press the issue offensively. On the one hand, the fact that Slovenia won its first match against Algeria means that the U.S. is the side in more dire need of a win. Then again, the argument could be made that the chance for Slovenia to clinch passage to the second round with a victory will be too big an opportunity to pass up.
Yet it seems likely that the U.S. will feel the pressure to attack and score. This, history has proved, does not play to the team's strengths. While players like Donovan and Clint Dempsey have plenty of creativity, maintaining possession has long been a problem for the Americans. It'll only be more of a challenge against Slovenia's defense, which is adept at disrupting a team's rhythm. Breaching such a stingy back line will require all elements of the U.S. attack to be operating at their peak.
"When a team is organized like that, at some point you have to take some risks if you want to score," Donovan said. "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."
That also means a dynamic passer, such as midfielder Jose Torres, could be added to the starting lineup. Torres certainly sounds as though he has the right mind-set to find whatever holes exist in the Slovenian defense.
"When a team sits back and they're just waiting for a counterattack, a team has to be patient and has to have possession of the ball -- not look for the long ball and just see what we can get off of that," Torres said. "This is where the experience comes out of every player, you know? We have to keep possession and not get frustrated, and let them come out a little bit. And when there's open gaps try to put the ball through and try to make something happen."
That patience will be needed to blunt Slovenia's counterattacking game, which is orchestrated by midfielders Robert Koren and Valter Birsa. Koren is the player through whom much of Slovenia's attack flows. Birsa is the Slovenian version of Dempsey, a player who can deliver the unexpected, either off the dribble or with a pass.
Another performer who seemed poised to give the U.S. trouble was forward Zlatko Dedic, a pesky, high-energy player who has a knack for scoring vital goals. But Dedic was disappointing in the Algeria match, struggling mightily with his touch and was pulled after just 53 minutes. Zlatan Ljubijankic could be in line to take his place alongside target man Milivoje Novakovic.
An additional concern for the U.S. is its feeble 0-5 history against Eastern European teams in World Cup games. Granted, that history has little to do with the current U.S. team, but its performance in recent friendlies, such as a 1-0 loss to Slovakia in November, is enough to raise a red flag.
"Those were games where I think we just didn't make the plays needed," Donovan said. "It wasn't like we were dominated; it wasn't like they were clearly better. We just need to make plays that make a difference. At this level -- and you've seen it in all of the [World Cup] games so far -- it just comes down to a play or two."
Gaining a win Friday will also require the U.S. to manage expectations. In the past, the team has not been comfortable as the favorite. But if the U.S. is to reach the second round, Donovan & Co. will need to make a habit of winning when they're expected to win.
"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 night."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN Soccernet. 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 email@example.com.