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June 17, 2010

U.S-Slovenia: Tale of the tape

Carlisle By Jeff Carlisle
ESPN.com
(Archive)

When the World Cup draw was announced last December, Slovenia was pegged as a team the U.S. should beat, but this figures to be a tricky encounter for the Americans. The Green Dragons provide the kind of disciplined side that should be very difficult to get past.

What's on the line:

The match is close to a must-win for the U.S. given that Slovenia claimed all three points in its opener with Algeria. While a tie wouldn't be fatal for the Americans, it would leave them in the uncomfortable position of having to beat Algeria in the group finale, while getting help elsewhere. Slovenia can clinch passage to the second round with a victory. Even a tie would greatly help its cause.

Style and tactics:

Both teams prefer to sit back, soak up pressure and hit opponents on the counter. But given that the U.S. needs a win more than Slovenia does, it's the team most likely to seize the attacking initiative. This is a role that the Americans haven't excelled at in the past, as they have struggled to break down the kind of organized defense possessed by the Slovenes.

Given its spot at the top of Group C, Slovenia can afford to take a more passive approach, especially since its counterattack can be lethal. Defensively the Green Dragons have been in imperious form. In World Cup qualifying they conceded just six goals, and they shut out Algeria in their opener last Sunday.

Players to watch:

For Slovenia: Samir Handanovic, Robert Koren, Milivoje Novakovic

Handanovic is one of the best young keepers in Europe, possessing an imposing 6-foot-4 frame as well as impressive mobility and reflexes. Koren is the Green Dragons' quarterback, a box-to-box midfielder capable of dictating the tempo as well as striking at goal, although his tackling is sometimes questioned. He scored Slovenia's lone goal in its 1-0 win over Algeria. Forward Novakovic has the size to play with his back to goal, but has also been known to drop deep into midfield or slide out to the wing in order to serve as an impromptu playmaker.

For the U.S.: Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley

Given that Slovenia is expected to sit back, the onus will be on the U.S. to attack, meaning its midfielders will need to be on their game. Dempsey and Donovan are expected to provide the bulk of the creativity for the Americans. For the second consecutive World Cup, Dempsey has shown his knack for goal and his trickery on the ball could be what's needed to unlock the Slovenia defense. In a game that may well be decided by set pieces, Donovan's deliveries could also prove critical.

Bradley will be one of those players who will be trying to get on the end of Donovan's serves. He'll also need to provide the requisite amount of discipline in midfield to prevent any Slovenian counterattacks.

What we can expect:

This game will be much more of a chess match than the frenetic U.S.-England game. Look for the U.S. to have much more possession than it had against England as the Americans try to pick the padlock of Slovenia's defense. To have success, the Americans will need to balance risk with discipline. For that reason Jose Torres could line up alongside Bradley in midfield in a bid to get more skill -- and therefore possession -- on the field.

Intangibles:

Historically, the U.S. has struggled against the physicality and guile of teams from Eastern Europe, going 0-5 in World Cup matches since 1990. As such, this match seems tailor-made for Slovenia, as it can employ a defend-and-counter strategy that minimizes risks.

Who'll win:

This is a difficult matchup for the Americans. Slovenia will be solid defensively, but the U.S. should be able to keep enough discipline to keep its net clean, as well. Look for a 0-0 draw, leaving the Americans with everything to play for in the last game of the group stage.

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 eljefe1@yahoo.com.