When looking at the prospect of a nation of 300 million people battling a nation with just 2 million, it would be easy to slip into the classic David vs. Goliath cliché.
But it really doesn’t fit here.
The United States takes on Slovenia Friday at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, and while a loss wouldn’t mathematically the Americans, it would make progressing to the knockout stages very, very difficult.
So call it a must-win. Or at least a must-not lose.
But don’t call it a mismatch.
The United States is 14th in the latest FIFA rankings, just 11 spots higher than Slovenia. And in order for Slovenia to arrive in South Africa for the World Cup, they had to beat Russia in a two-match playoff. Russia, if you’re wondering, is rated No. 11.
Still thinking of queuing up the biblical references? They’re not thinking that way in the Slovenian camp.
“We will win this game,” midfielder Andrej Komac said. “I have a good feeling.”
Is he right? Let’s look a little closer.
When the U.S. is on attack
It will be interesting to see if the Americans take a bit bolder tack in this match than they did in the 1-1 draw against England.
In an ideal world, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey will see plenty of the ball on either wing, either cutting inside or floating crosses in to Jozy Altidore.
Breaking down Slovenia may be difficult, however. They’re coming off a 1-0 win over Algeria and allowed just 5 goals in 12 qualifying games, including just one to Russia in the last two. Udinese keeper Samir Handanovic is an important last line of defense for the Little Dragons, so it will take a strong technical effort to put goals on the board.
When Slovenia is on attack
Valter Birsa figures to attack from the left wing, trying to make trouble for Steve Cherundolo. In addition, captain Robert Koren, who had the goal against Algeria, leads from the midfield while Milivoje Novakovic (Cologne) and Zlatko Dedic (Bochum) also provide punch up front.
The Americans are downplaying the guarantee from Komac, but you have to believe that it’s been pinned to the whiteboard somewhere in the U.S. camp.
The draw against England was a fine result, one that should give the Americans the confidence they need to push forward, nip a goal or two, and win this game.
Slovenia looked a little shaky at the back against Algeria, particularly in the first half, and they might indeed crack under a little more sustained pressure.
It’s hard to imagine Bob Bradley’s side taking a step back after the England game. This is an opportunity to make a statement for guys like Dempsey, Donovan, Tim Howard and Michael Bradley.
It won’t be easy, and it isn’t likely to be overly artistic.
But I say they get it done.