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World Cup Preview: USA vs. Slovenia

The USA and Slovenia match up for their second game in the World Cup Friday morning at 9:00 am CDT on ESPN.  Slovenia lead Group C with 3 points by virtue of their 1-0 win over Algeria.  The USA comes in the match with a point after tying England last Saturday,1-1.

Slovenia has been an independent nation for only twenty years, following the breakup of Yugoslavia.  The nation with the smallest national population in this edition of the World Cup,  Slovenia have proved mighty in qualification, finishing second in their group over the Czech Republic and Poland and defeating Russia in a two-game playoff to gain a ticket to South Africa.  Although Slovenia’s victory over Algeria can be credited somewhat to being a man up the last twenty minutes of the match and a misplay by the Algerian goalkeeper, Slovenia are a defense-first squad that the US may have difficulty breaking down.  Having won their first World Cup game ever, Coach Matjaz Kek’s Slovenians will play with confidence, and having already garnered three points, they can afford to play very cautiously and wait for counter-attack opportunities to gain a result.  They are self-assured and content with their style, and midfielder Andrej Komac predicted a Slovenian victory over the US after Tuesday’s practice session.

Also helping Slovenia’s cause will be the presence of Udinese goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, who further cemented his growing reputation by keeping a clean sheet against Algeria.  Midfielder Robert Koren, who scored the winner against Algeria, played for West Brom Albion last season, and starting strikers Zlatko Dedic and Milovoje Novakovic played in the Bundesliga last season for Bochum and FC Koln respectively.  Novakovic has scored 51 goals in Germany since 2006. 

For the US squad, Coach Bob Bradley will have his team well-prepared emotionally as well as tactically.  The US needs the victory Friday more than Slovenia do to go forward in 2010, and the US team will also have to guard against a letdown after their emotional draw with England, a game that both nations had been pointing to for six months.  With Slovenia’s three points and a positive one goal differential, the US need to score and thus may be vulnerable to counterattack.  US goalkeeper Tim Howard suffered a rib injury after being crashed into by England’s Emile Heskey last Saturday.  He is expected to start for the US Friday, but one has to wonder how he will play with sore ribs.  Marcus Hahnemann is a more than adequate replacement, but he lacks the experience of playing with the US backline that Howard has.  The status of Howard’s health will be worth watching.

I expect Bradley to field a speedy team to take advantage of the slower Slovenian defense.  With the need for goals and a win, I would imagine Robbie Findley will again get the nod as Jozy Altidore’s runningmate on the front line, although I look to Herculez Gomez coming in as a substitute late in the game, especially if the US is losing or drawn at that point.  In the midfield, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley seem guaranteed to start.  The question is the position of the other holding midfield position — will Ricardo Clark start again, or will Bradley counter with the Rangers’ Maurice Edu or the most proficient attacker of the group, Jose Torres?   Torres needs to be in the game at some point, although he lacks the international experience of the other American midfielders, including DeMarcus Beasley, Bennie Feilhaber or even Stuart Holden.   Torres adds so much in possession and can tackle well, too.  One expects the same American backline as that which started against England.  Steve Cherundolo played extremely well at right back, with Oguchi Onyewu and Jay Demerit in the center and Carlos Bocanegra at left back.  The foursome combine a lot of veteran experience yet are still relatively young, and should be physical enough to handle Slovenia’s attack.

The US is favored in this game.  Generally, the US play up or down to their level of competition, and had a letdown after their 2002 World Cup victory over Portugal and their 2006 draw against Italy.  So this game worries me.  On form, the US should win.  I think they will, but like a lot of fans I have a gnawing feeling that Slovenia could be very dangerous on the counter and will pack in their defense enough to frustrate the Americans.  This game, in some ways, is more difficult for the Americans than the England match.  It will be very interesting to see what our boys are really made of on Friday.  GO USA !!!

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