In a tournament like the World Cup, wins are at a premium. After the 1-1 tie against England, the United States faces a must-win game on Friday against the tiny nation of Slovenia.
And after years of always being the underdog in World Cup matches, the U.S. team faces unfamiliar territory as it goes into this game as the favorite.
“I think it’s a challenge,” U.S. defender Jay DeMerit said. “I think preparation is key, I think mindset as a team is key, but I also think we need to use that as a positive to say that we should expect more as a team. There’s no reason to come to tournaments like this and get results like we did on Saturday to not put in a good performance against Slovenia, because that ... makes all the hard work and fight and the whole performance that we put in against England not worthwhile.”
But despite Slovenia being ranked 11 places below the USA squad, according to FIFA’s World Rankings, and the fact that Slovenia is the smallest nation in population size in the World Cup, it has a lot of confidence and has been on a hot streak.
After finishing second in its UEFA qualifying group for the World Cup, Slovenia beat Russia in a two-legged playoff to earn its ticket to South Africa. Then, last Sunday, the team defeated Algeria 1-0 thanks to captain midfielder Robert Koren.
“It was a mental victory,” Slovenia coach Matjaz Kek said. “We wanted to win so much, so it’s great for our confidence to get that win.”
Slovenia’s confidence is so high, in fact, that defender Andrej Komac is essentially guaranteeing a win against the United States.
“We are playing our style of football, and we’ll continue with that, and we can beat the U.S. with that style,” Komac said after a training session.
The Americans are sure to be wary of the tiny Eastern European nation on the field, though.
“They’re going to be a tough team,” U.S. midfielder Clint Dempsey said. “They keep the ball away. They have players who can cause problems, so we’re going to have to play our best game to get something out of it.”
Fellow midfielder Landon Donovan agreed.
“They seem to have good chemistry — they know each other well,” Donovan said. “They’ve obviously played a lot of games together through difficult European qualifying and come out of it. ... They’re not going to be spectacular, but a very solid team that will be difficult to beat.”
However, the American players didn’t take too kindly to the win talk from the Slovenes, as goalkeeper Tim Howard and defender Oguchi Onyewu sounded off to reporters the next day after hearing Komac’s prediction.
“I think talk is cheap,” Howard said. “He’s got to stand toe-to-toe, and they’ve got to stand toe-to-toe with us for 90 minutes. And if he’s still standing, then I’ll take my hat off to him. But a lot of boxers talk, too, and then they’re looking up at the lights.”
Onyewu echoed Howard’s doubt.
“It’s definitely a premature comment to make,” Onyewu said. “I don’t think a U.S. player would make a comment like that.”
The United States also received good news from its medical staff on Monday: Howard will not miss any matches after being injured in the 29th minute of the 1-1 tie against England. English forward Emile Heskey slid into the penalty box and inadvertently kicked Howard in the right side of his ribcage.
Howard said he believes he will be ready for the Slovenia game.
“Time is a good healer,” he said. “I’ve had a few days. It’s just going to be sensitive, but as you know, if you play at the highest level, I think you have to play through injuries.”
U.S. coach Bob Bradley can now breathe a sigh of relief as he prepares for the important second game.
“Without a doubt, Slovenia is a well organized team,” Bradley said on “The Football Program,” a soccer show on Sirius XM Radio. “They play very, very solid defensively. I think anybody who saw the playoff series with Russia would know that, and so we have respect for them and we know that a lot is at stake, so we’ll do everything we can to be ready to go.
“It’s a game that is close to a must-win, but it’s 100 percent a game you can’t lose.”