The World Cup is an unforgiving place, as the United States is finding out in a hurry.
Just one game into the tournament—a highly commendable draw against one of the world’s top-rated teams in England—the Americans already are facing a do-or-die showdown in South Africa. A defeat to Slovenia at Ellis Park on Friday would not see Bob Bradley’s team mathematically eliminated, but it would leave the USA needing a miracle to progress to the round of 16. Last Saturday’s 1-1 tie with England might have been the highest-profile game in American soccer history, but in terms of progression toward the business end of the event, the US’s second group match holds even more importance. Bradley must identify the key areas in which the USA need to shine against Slovenia, a tough side that beat Russia in a playoff to qualify for the World Cup.
Here is where the game will be won and lost, with guidance on how to follow all the action from Ellis Park.
1. Scare ribs
Tim Howard’s brilliance in goal was the main reason the US escaped defeat against England. Along with Nigeria’s Vincent Enyeama, Howard has been the tournament’s standout keeper, and his presence will be needed once again.
Howard damaged his ribs in a nasty collision with Emile Heskey last Saturday and has recovered solidly, but there still could be some stiffness in his ribcage that the Americans hope does not restrict his movement.
Look out for: Slovenia shooting from long distance . The Slovenians will be well aware of Howard’s injury and will seek to test it out at every opportunity. Expect plenty of long shots from fierce ball strikers such as captain Robert Koren, crosses to make Howard stretch, and some cynical jostling near Howard in the penalty area on corner kicks.
2. Friendly fire
Several members of the Slovenian side come with hot tempers that have been known to boil over on the big occasion. Fans at their 1-0 victory over Algeria in Polokwane on Sunday were stunned to see goalkeeper Samir Handanovic and defender Marko Suler screaming at each other furiously during the second half. The pair had been involved in a mix-up which they blamed on a lack of communication caused by, you guessed it, those dreaded vuvuzelas.
More verbal fireworks would be no surprise.
Look out for: Slovenia’s screaming goalkeeper . Handanovic’s teammates with Udinese in the Italian Serie A say the keeper actually gets louder and more boisterous the better he plays. A couple of sparkling early saves could send his mouth into overdrive—and the results could be explosive.
3. Landon’s legacy
Landon Donovan is the best American player of his generation, and maybe ever, but he hasn’t done much in a World Cup since his outstanding performances in the 2002 World Cup.
Donovan’s effectiveness against England was reduced, largely because he and Ashley Cole—one of the world’s finest left backs—canceled each other out for long periods. However, a game like this is made for Donovan to step up and use his speed and skill to run at the big, yet slow, Slovenian defense.
Look out for: Donovan switching sides . Donovan may start on the right side of midfield but could find more joy if he switches to the left, where he can attack the less mobile Miso Brecko and be freed from defensive duties watching the always dangerous Valter Birsa.
4. Vhere’s Valter?
Valter Birsa is likely to be Slovenia’s biggest threat, operating from a position on the left flank and regularly cutting inside. Against Algeria, he came within inches of scoring with a turbo-charged left-foot strike from the edge of the area.
Slovenia is functional rather than flashy, yet the 23-year-old, who plays for Auxerre in France’s Ligue 1, has pace, talent, and shooting ability that can’t be ignored. His critics, though, claim he goes missing in games and struggles to recover from a poor start.
Look out for: Birsa vs. Cherundolo . Birsa’s battle with right back Steve Cherundolo, who was one of the USA’s most impressive performers against England, will be one of the most critical head-to-head matchups.
5. Midfield mouthpieces
The US woke up on Wednesday morning to be greeted by headlines regaling a bold prediction from Slovenian midfielder Andrej Komac. “We will win this game,” Komac said. “I have a good feeling.” Komac is likely to come into the starting lineup and will go up against Michael Bradley, the USA’s own midfield enforcer. Bradley will surely be keen to make Komac pay for his overconfidence, but he needs to put in a far more efficient display than he managed against England.
Look out for: Michael Bradley was a mere shadow of his normal self in the Group C opener, looking overawed playing against Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. American fans will hope to see Bradley shouting and ordering his colleagues about as he marshals the midfield—usually a fair sign he is confident and in form.