IRENE, South Africa – The Americans returned to the practice field Tuesday, not only to prepare for their upcoming match with Slovenia but also for the new role they’ve been cast in at this World Cup: favorites.
Yes, that’s right. The good, ol’ underdog Yanks are favored for a change – and therein lies the problem.
“In all likelihood, if we lose, we’re out of the tournament,” Landon Donovan said. “That’s the reality of the situation.
“A tie means we’re still in the tournament. You have to be aware of that. That being said, we understand very clearly that if we win the game, we’ve got a very, very good chance of getting through. So that will be our focus.”
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It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the Americans don’t want to be in the position of having only one point through two matches while Slovenia has six and England might have four.
Coming off an opening 1-1 draw against England, a victory against Slovenia on Friday would put the U.S. squad in prime position to advance going into its Group C finale against Algeria on June 23. Slovenia beat Algeria, 1-0, in its opener.
And even though the United States is a 2-1 favorite, according to betcris.com, players don’t see much of an advantage over Slovenia.
“They’re going to be a tough team,” said Clint Dempsey, who scored the tying goal against England. “They keep the ball well. They have players who can cause you problems. So we’re just going to have to play our best game to get something out of it.”
It will be a different type of game, too, against Slovenia, which won its opener on Robert Koren’s 79th-minute goal when it bounced in off the arm of goalkeeper Fawzi Chaouchi.
Central midfielders Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark were pinned in defensive positions against the English, while Donovan and Dempsey were pinched in, forcing attacking wingers to go wide.
Slovenia, which qualified by defeating Russia in a home-and-home playoff last November, likely will rely on counterattacks. For that reason, there has been speculation U.S. coach Bob Bradley might consider starting Jose Torres in place of Clark in an effort in improve possession.
The United States is ranked 14th in the world, and Slovenia is 25th. Still, Eastern European defenses have been difficult for the Americans to infiltrate. Czechoslovakia won, 5-1, at the 1990 World Cup; Romania won, 1-0, four years later; and Yugoslavia won by the same score in 1998.
Even after the Americans started with a win against Portugal and a draw with host South Korea in 2002, Poland beat the U.S. team, 3-1. Four years ago, the United States opened with a 3-0 loss to the Czech Republic.
DeMerit expects Slovenia to be “very organized, very willing to work together to try to make our day difficult.”