When the US group stage opponents came out in December, one of the first things that I actually thought of was…..how am I going to learn about Slovenia. I had a great read on England and by happenstance had watched a handful of Algerian games.
It’s been extremely tough going on Slovenia though as my education has been limited to podcast, highlights and speaking with friends.
One thing that continues to intrigue me is the pipeline of players from both Slovakia and Slovenia to West Bromwich Albion a Championship side that will be promoted (back) to the Premiership next year. It’s that area of the world’s Fulham or Everton.
Thankfully, Michael Hikari Cecire got in touch with me as we were looking for new writers.
Luckily enough, Michael is currently residing in Tbilisi, Georgia working as a public policy and geopolitical analyst by day. While it’s not exactly a neighbor, Michael has a just a little more access than we do to Slovenia. Michael also wants to mention by the way that he is a former offensive midfielder for the Warwick High School varsity men’s soccer team and was team captain for all of two days.
Michael gives us a look-in on Slovenia.
When the USMNT drew its group for the 2010 WC in December, US squad boosters around the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. Aside from perennial powerhouse England, the US will also face comparatively weaker sides in Slovenia and Algeria.
In his response to the draw, American soccer commentator-par-excellence Ives Galarcep noted that “the Americans were drawn against a strong England side, but the rest of Group C is filled out with beatable opponents Algeria and Slovenia to give the U.S. team what is arguably the easiest draw it has ever faced in a World Cup.”
Undoubtedly true, especially considering the stiff competition it faced in 2002 in mighty Portugal, hosts South Korea, and a solid Polish squad. In 2006, drawn against Italy, the Czech Republic, and Ghana, the US fell into what was called the ‘group of death,’ and US world cup hopes fell victim accordingly.
A favored English squad notwithstanding, the US will be playing against what is arguably its most favored group draw since it hosted the tournament in 1994. US soccer fans, and myself included, clearly see this summer’s competition as a singular opportunity to launch the profile of its game to a new level, building on the stunning performance of the USMNT in last summer’s Confederations Cup. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s a chance to silence the naysayers and eurosnobs forever (one hopes).
But we’ve seen this movie before. In addition to an expected tough battle against a loaded English side, US fans should be careful not to write off the wily Algerians and tireless Slovenes, who themselves are armed with a capable roster of players in some of the top European competitions.
In particular, in Slovenia the US could be facing a pack of sleepers, with their confidence bubbling coming off of a dream qualifying campaign capped by a shock 1-0 win over Russia, nobody’s slouch.
In addition, the Slovenian National Team captain, Robert Koren, has become something of a hero for his West Bromwich Albion Championship side, which looks like it could be headed to the EPL next season after Koren’s brace of goals against Leicester City and the Baggies’ 1-1 Draw against Watford. To be sure, the Slovenes seem to have a tough and capable goal-scorer in the sturdy Koren, who has proven his ability to slip past defenses and create opportunities even with minimal service.
What the 5’6 Koren lacks in physicality and brawn is more than made up for in fellow striker and Bundesliga stalwart Milivoje Novakovic, a powerful 6’4 playmaker that is sure to cause trouble for the US defense. Assuming Gooch is back and healthy, he’ll certainly have his work cut out for him.
In the back, Slovenia is armed with Samir Handanovic, who makes his living goalkeeping for beleaguered Udinese, a fact that may only underline a stiff persistence despite Udinese’s famously porous defense.
The Slovenian backline may be the trickiest conundrum, as they have posted impressive performances in qualifying, allowing only four goals in the group stage. Led by the hulking (aside from Oguchi Onyewu, that is) 6’3 Bostjan Cesar, who plays in Ligue 1 side Grenoble, a still uncertain US offense is sure to be thoroughly tested.
Less quantifiable but also worth considering is the USMNT record against small, central and Eastern European opponents. Who can forget Poland in 2002 or, more recently, a 1-0 loss to Slovakia. Whether is a function of fitness, lineup, or psychology, the Nats will have to take Slovenia seriously if they hope to advance past the group stage.
Though Slovenia will be no walkover, neither are they necessarily a waiting assassin to US hopes. Despite a strong backline and a capable offense, Slovenia seems to lack much wealth in its midfield, which can hardly be considered one of the more creative cadres among World Cup competitors. Shutting down midfield service and penetrating the Slovenian’s stingy backline is likely to be the key to a US win.
Overall, the US still overmatches its Slovenian opponents, but should in no way take the contest for granted. In many ways, Slovenia and the US will be playing a similar game – emphasizing a stultifying defense with goals on the counterattack. The US formation should adjust accordingly, lest they allow our paper dominance to get in the way of a much-needed, and heartily expected, win this summer.