Clemente Lisi offers a scouting report on Slovenia, the next opponent for the US in the FIFA World Cup.
The United States resumes its World Cup adventure on Friday, taking on scrappy Slovenia in Johannesburg. With the England game out of the way, the US can focus its full attention on Slovenia – a team that took advantage against Algeria in their opening game.
Slovenia coach Matjaz Kek has brought some consistency to this squad, sticking with the same core of players that helped the team qualify for the World Cup finals last year. Captained by midfielder Robert Koren, Slovenia is a tough team with several outstanding players.
The American back four – solid against the English in last Saturday’s 1-1 draw in the group opener – will have to tangle with striker Milivoje Novakovic and fellow forward Zlatan Ljubijankic. Both have overcome injuries over the past few months and should be in top form.
“I think it’s important for us to use our momentum from (the England) game and to push it towards the next two games,” defender Oguchi Onyewu said. “It’s going to be very difficult. Even more difficult as the tournament goes on and the results get more crucial.”
The US has traditionally had a rough go against Eastern and Central European sides at past World Cups. The Americans are 0-8-1 (while being outscored 19-4) against such opponents. The only point came at USA ’94 when they played Switzerland to a 1-1 draw at the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit.
Slovenia reached the World Cup finals by stunning Russia in a two-game playoff. They've had convincing victories in recent friendly games against Qatar and New Zealand. On Sunday, Koren scored the lone goal to give Slovenia a 1-0 win over 10-man Algeria, catapulting them to first place with three points ahead of the US and England in Group C.
Koren struck a long-range shot that Algeria goalkeeper Fawzi Chaouchi misjudged, allowing the ball to bounce over his arm and into the net in the 79th minute. The blunder - possibly the product of the new and much-discussed ball being used for the World Cup - was reminiscent of England goalkeeper Robert Green's blunder the previous day against the United States.
“I was just lucky to see it go in like that," Koren told reporters.
Against Algeria, Slovenia did very little. They know how to play the wings, but that's something that Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo should be able to handle. Slovenia's midfield isn't a good match against the USA's Ricardo Clark and Michael Bradley.
Kek employs a very conservative 4-4-2 with a midfield that lacks any real flair or imagination. Aleksander Radosavljevic is a holding midfielder, while Koren, also a midfielder, is utilized primarily as an attacking player. Valter Birsa is terrific on set pieces and can often make something out of nothing. The US needs to avoid giving Slovenia any chance at free kicks from outside its penalty area.
Perhaps the best player on the team is Slovenia’s goalkeeper. Samir Handanovic is one of the most underrated players in the world at his position. Handanovic has played since 2004 with Serie A side Udinese, although he has been loaned out at various times to Italian clubs Treviso, Lazio and Rimini. At 6-foot-5 and only 25-years-old, Handanovic is great on high balls, often making up for his team's defensive blunders. He is so talented that Italy keeper Gianluigi Buffon, the best in the World, hailed Handanovic last year as "one of the best goalkeepers in Italy.”
Slovenia does not have a storied World Cup past (its only appearance came in Korea/Japan 2002 when it lost all three of its games) and none of the 23 players on the current squad were on the roster when it lost to Spain, South Africa and Paraguay in the first round.
"Every World Cup is a new challenge. I feel that my team is very motivated to do well,” Kek, who played for Slovenia in 1992, a year after the country gained its independence from the former Yugoslavia, said during a news conference Saturday.
As for the Americans, coach Bob Bradley is happy to have the England game out of the way.
“We’ve said it so many times that we understand what the first round is about, but we were still excited to start the World Cup playing against England,” he said following the England game. “It’s a big game and a big night, and overall we take away positive things as we now get ready for Slovenia.”
Tim Howard, who is still recovering after getting kicked in the ribs against England, agreed.
“We’re glad it’s over,” he said of the England game. “We talked about England for six months. A lot of hype, a lot of pressure.”