U.S. won't overlook its opponents
Remember the old adage, "Be careful what you wish for, you may get it?" The U.S. men's national team should.
The U.S. will face group heavyweights England in its opener on June 12, a match that will contain enough plot lines (David Beckham, Landon Donovan, 1950) to give David Mamet a migraine. But it's the Americans' other two adversaries -- Algeria and Slovenia -- that have U.S. fans feeling giddy. Algeria is regarded as the least powerful of the five African qualifiers (not including hosts South Africa). Slovenia are also deemed to be among the tournament's lesser lights.
If this seems like the perfect recipe for overconfidence, well, it is, although everyone associated with the U.S. team seems to be giving the first-round opponents their due respect.
"It's a draw that is good for us as far as draws go," said former U.S. national team assistant coach John Hackworth, who now holds the same post with MLS side Philadelphia Union. "But I've been through enough of them, particularly on youth level, to know that sometimes it's very deceptive in terms of people's perception of how good a team is based on whether they are a power or what their ranking is."
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Added U.S. attacker Landon Donovan during Friday's conference call, "I certainly don't overlook [Algeria and Slovenia]. I know on paper it seems like a better draw than we had last time but that all goes out the window when the games start."
While the U.S. deserves its label as favorites to progress, the Americans' group is one with some considerable landmines, especially when the styles of the respective teams are examined. England showed in 2008 the gulf in class that exists when the English easily dispatched the Americans 2-0. The U.S. has made considerable progress since then, especially when its run to the final of the 2009 Confederations Cup is taken into account. But at this stage, the only possible positional advantage the U.S. has is in goal with Tim Howard. And the edge England has over the Americans in terms of its ability to keep possession is still considerable, especially when names like Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard are factored in.
That makes it likely that the U.S. will be staring up at the rest of the group following its opening game. Yet Hackworth believes the U.S. is strong enough mentally to absorb such a blow.
"When you can get off to a good start, it builds a ton of confidence in your team," Hackworth said. "In this case though, and knowing Bob [Bradley] and the way he will approach that game with the team and the staff, they'll go in being a little bit realistic. If they can go in and get a result, great, if not, they're playing to get out of the group.
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"Certainly our experience in the Confederations Cup is going to come into play in a huge way when we go into group play in the World Cup. Losing the first two games and getting out of the group at the Confederations Cup, that was a huge lesson for the players and for our staff."
That know-how will be put to the test six days later against a Slovenia side that poses a different set of problems for the Americans. While Matjaz Kek's team clearly lacks England's quality, it is one that is highly organized, and extremely difficult to break down, as evidenced by the fact it conceded just four goals in its group qualifying matches. And much like the Slovakia side that defeated the U.S. 1-0 in a friendly last month, it'll be perfectly content to soak up pressure and nail the Americans on the break.
Of course, the U.S. established its own potency on the counterattack at the Confederations Cup, although the injuries sustained by forward Charlie Davies in an October car accident make the Americans less effective in that regard. But it raises the question of which team will opt to carry the play.
"It's more of a tactical game because in order to play [a counterattacking style] the opponent has to come out a little bit, whether that's through one of their own counterattacks or by them having the ball a little bit, getting downfield and bringing some of their numbers forward," Hackworth said. "That's not going to be easy, but at the same time I've always felt like we're not just a counterattacking team. I think we've been a team in CONCACAF where we had to go out and play against teams that sat in and looked for restart opportunities and counterattacks. We've been exposed to a lot of that in some pretty big games."
If the U.S. does decide to take the initiative in attack, it'll need to stay disciplined, and be especially mindful of Slovenia's frontline duo of Milivoje Novakovic and Zlatko Dedic, both of whom are veterans of the German Bundesliga with Cologne and Bochum, respectively. West Bromwich Albion midfielder Robert Koren remains the twosome's primary supplier, and limiting his influence could do much to disrupt the Slovenians' game.
But summoning the creativity needed to break down Slovenia's defense will likely prove the biggest challenge. And while the pedigree of their back line doesn't quite match that of their forwards, the collective efforts of Grenoble's Bostjan Cesar and Gent's Marko Suler, among others, is clearly greater than the sum of its parts.
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The Americans' group finale will take place in Pretoria on June 23 against Algeria. The U.S. will likely progress only as far as its midfield allows, and this just so happens to be the area where the Desert Foxes are strongest. Many of the players in Algeria's midfield ply their trade in Europe's top leagues, with Wolfsburg's Karim Ziani, Borussia Monchengladbach's Karim Matmour, and Lazio's Mourad Meghni among them.
Such strength has led manager Rabah Saadane to employ a 3-5-2, although it will be interesting to see how a pacy player like Donovan will be able to exploit the inevitable gaps that appear out wide in such a system.
But after enduring a qualifying campaign fraught with tension, one that included an attack on the team bus by Egyptian supporters, it's clear that Algeria has the mental fortitude to make some noise in the tournament.
That said, the Americans will be expecting that by the time the third game rolls around, their fate will be entirely in their hands. At which point they could -- and should -- be able to step safely into the second round.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.