Guest Post: The Mystery of Slovenia

En Espanol

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.

The Hawthorns Stadium: Home to many from the Slovenia region...

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.

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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.

Koren: Slight of frame, but also of foot...

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.

Cesar, right, is TSG's player to watch...

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.

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39 responses to this post.

  1. I feel like this is a trap game. USA often struggles and plays down to the level of opponents that bunker in and try to counter.

    Reply

    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/04/15 at 7:15 AM

      With Kek, they are fairly well organised, with men behind the ball, and definitely don’t mind conceding possession – but not necessarily territorial advantage. If I remember correctly, when we played them, their offensive threat came from the flanks, so the full backs need to positionally savvy to be able to cut crosses out. And yes, they scored by attacking Johnson…

      Kek has already started the mind games, trying to get opponents to underestimate his side. He’s saying that just qualifying is an acheivement** for a country of 2m, and they cannot compete with England and USA etc…

      **it is a great acheivement, but it’s still mind games. He knows what he is doing!

      Reply

      • Posted by matthewsf on 2010/04/15 at 7:18 AM

        You George — I was waiting for you to weigh in .. thanks for the tidbits….(and excited for your reviews of the England friendlies!)

        Reply

      • If their attacks come from the wings, that should be an advantage for us. I’d like to see them try to take it to Landon.

        Reply

  2. Posted by Paul on 2010/04/15 at 12:04 AM

    Any word on what the Slovenians think of their team’s WC uniform? I am so glad that Slovenia will be wearing their dreadful Charlie Brown yellow stripe and hideous green ensemble against the US’s silly blue and white sash combo. These jersey designs are so hideous even Oregon football refused to wear them. This game that will remind us all why Nike should not be allowed to design uniforms for any sporting event.

    Reply

    • Mrs Tuesday and I happened to be at a local sporting goods store that has a large display of World Cup Jerseys. After a careful review, in her illustrious opinion, Spain’s jersey is of the highest merit with several other countries wearing Adidas following closely behind.

      Upon seeing Nike’s new US jersey she said “What the hell is that ugly thing?!” I explained that it was the new US Jersey and it was an update of the jersey the US wore in 1950 when they defeated England. After careful consideration she proclaimed, “you are not buying one of those, no way. That is the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen.”

      The takeaway, when it comes to national team jerseys, Adidas = class, Nike = trash. That also applies literally in this case.

      Reply

      • Posted by matthewsf on 2010/04/15 at 8:11 AM

        I’m not sure what I am more surprised by: – That Nike’s jerseys don’t resonate (I’ll have my follow-up post with “lame” Nike comments coming shortly) – That you are still dressed by Mrs. Tuesday.

        Reply

        • To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of the Jersey but I think it’s quite classy compared to some of the previous iterations. I wonder what Mrs. Tuesday would’ve thought of those. I’m holding out for the white one before I make my purchase.

          I think you asked Nike whether they’d consider taking the Adidas approach with our Jersey and do variations on a consistent theme rather than the constant reinvention. But it’s ultimately about identity, isn’t it? And that just wouldn’t be very American.

          As for being dressed by Mrs. Tuesday, it also means I get to dress her on occasion, an arrangement that I must confess to being very happy with. And of course, I’ll get the jersey anyway and she’ll decide she actually quite likes it at a later date.

          Reply

      • Posted by Paul on 2010/04/15 at 8:30 AM

        My biggest problem with the Nike jersey is that it is an update of the 1950 jersey. Yes, it was a great win, and Americans should remember those fine players, but what about the quality of this year’s side? As much as Bradley and company frustrate us, their success–individually and collectively–deserves a unique jersey–not an updated throwback uni. Playing with this jersey for the WC is like a major league team playing an entire season with its throwback or Negro league jersey–a nice touch for certain occasions, but inappropriate for more than a handful of games.

        Further, I hate the idea of the jersey because it allows–if not begs–ESPN to run more clips of the 1950s game, make a legion of insipid references to the game during the US-England match, and generally water down analysis before, after, and during the match. Our boys deserve more than to allow these monopolists of sporting incompetence to ruin a great match and WC.

        Reply

        • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/04/15 at 8:47 AM

          Tuesday, you want to be careful – you’ll be labelled a Eurosnob! I have no problem with retro kits, as long as the original one was a quality design. Not to put the boot in, but I am very happy with ours!

          Reply

        • Paul, ESPN would do all of those things even if the sash was made of pink velvet.

          Reply

        • Posted by Paul on 2010/04/15 at 9:35 AM

          Unfortunately, that is true, but this is just making things so much easier. I should never underestimate the ability of ESPN to provide insipid coverage of soccer. I think World’s Strongest Man gets more balanced, non-canned/predetrimined coverage than soccer. My hopes are raised for this World Cup. Perhaps all the internationals ESPN dragged in will not fall for the Americanization and trivialization of the world’s greatest sporting event.

          Reply

      • Posted by Brad on 2010/04/15 at 1:03 PM

        Hopefully we’ll wear the white jersey more than the blue, since it’s much better looking. Of course, all four teams in our group wear white for their first jersey, (and looking ahead to the knockout phase, so do the two favored teams in Group D…) so we’ll have to go with the bad blues at least once…

        The thing that ticks me off most about switching our style is that… God dang it, we finally had a great uni in the whites with the thin red stripes. That really should have become our “look” forever more.

        Reply

        • Posted by itally on 2010/04/15 at 1:46 PM

          every time i’ve seen a new usmnt nike jersey the first thought that always enters my head is: “did they just give the design job to an intern at 4pm on a friday before a 5pm deadline?”

          i seriously feel that the usmnt nike jerseys are WAY down the pecking order for what’s important at nike…but of course i own one!

          Reply

      • Posted by Gino on 2010/04/15 at 10:32 PM

        I’ve always been a fan of the USA’s 1998 WC jersey. I know the team were awful but I’ve always admired that simple yet elegant white shirt. If anyone knows of a place where I can find one of those classy throwbacks, please share.

        Reply

  3. Posted by Colin on 2010/04/15 at 5:47 AM

    While I agree that no opponents can be taken for granted…I dont believe that Slovenia will be as much of a test as some people think. When their best player is Robert Koren…they arent working with much. He is one of the better players in the Championship, but that isnt saying a whole lot. (my newcastle were terrible in the prem last season but have totally dominated the championship this season). They dont allow many goals, but then again, the US only needs 1 to win this game I think. The key will be to get that goal early.

    Reply

    • Posted by matthewsf on 2010/04/15 at 7:06 AM

      See this team is just a mystery to me — hence the title of course

      What I know is that its the smallest country population wise going to the World Cup and it came out of Russia’s qualifying group.

      I believe Slovenia also allowed the fewest goals in qualifying — I’m going to need to check that.

      That’s all I can say for now, but the US arguably does better against attacking teams rather than defending ones because of our counterattack offense.

      An early goal by Slovenia in this one is something–I think–to be worried about.

      Reply

      • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/04/15 at 7:23 AM

        Most teams ‘defensively’ counter-attack when they’re the weaker team, because they know playing an open game is footballing suicide. What I mean by this is there is a difference between ‘parking the bus’ and drawring opponents out and then attcking with speed.

        It will be interesting watching the USA play a ‘weaker’ team and take the initiative, becasue they will be the happier with a 0-0 draw.

        Reply

        • Posted by matthewsf on 2010/04/15 at 7:26 AM

          George — this is where my years of fanitude come in….the US plays up or down to an opponent.

          Capable of beating Spain and taking Brazil to the limit…

          Also capable of nearly leaving with a draw or loss at T&T in September….or Costa Rica earlier in the year…

          These are the types of games that “scare” us as fans. Not England…and I mean that in the sense that the US will play their best against England, but we don’t beat weaker or similar teams with authority….

          Reply

        • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/04/15 at 7:38 AM

          Matthew, I understand that teams raise their game – you see it week in week out in the EPL (Burnley v United anyone?). I fully expect the Slovenia / Alegeria game to be quite an open game (relatively) as they will both fancy their chances of getting 3 points. But against teams that they’re expected to lose against, they’re going to suck to blood out of the game, and play very cautiously, so don’t expect a high scoreline (unless England or USA score first). This is what I was talking about when I said ‘take the initiative’.

          And of course it’s easy for the USA to get pumped up playing against “the powerhouses” – they look down at US football and it is a chance to prove them wrong. Easiest pre-match motivational speech ever!

          Reply

      • Posted by Colin on 2010/04/15 at 7:25 AM

        for sure…if slovenia scores first, then the US…and England in their match… will be in trouble

        Reply

  4. Posted by matthewsf on 2010/04/15 at 7:34 AM

    I’ll follow up my comment with this….

    The US is more prone to win or draw against an excellent team or draw or narrowly win against a poor team than it is to get demolished by a good team or trounce that poor team.

    Follow that limerick.

    Reply

    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/04/15 at 8:39 AM

      In a funny way, do you think this is a sign of progress for US football? That ‘poor’ teams are playing negative anti-football when they play the USA, because they’re scared of getting mullered? And that the USA are *expected* to easily turn over these teams with minimum fuss?

      Does anybody have any sites to get a report on Slovenia – I can only locate very basic info?

      Reply

      • Posted by Paul on 2010/04/15 at 9:07 AM

        I think you are right: the expectations of experts across the world for the US to win is one of the many signs that the glacial pace of US soccer advament is actually occuring; teams need to resort to “negative play” against the Americans to win. But doesn’t this potentially strike at another myth of US play–the fact that we can only score on the counter, and not in the run of play? After all, one doesn’t normally play anti-football against a counter-attacking side.

        Somebody needs to do a review of the last 10-15 US international games and see how many goals the US has actually scored in the counter or from a free kick. I think the number of strikes from counters and set pieces is actually lower than people realize.

        Reply

        • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/04/15 at 9:29 AM

          I am not suggesting that all counter-attacking football is anti-football, just some forms of it.

          But my point is what I said to Matthew earlier – it is *usually* the weaker of the two teams who play on the counter-attack. So I expect the USA to have a lot of the ball, but whether they enjoy a significant territorial advantage in the last third or easily get behind Slovenia is another matter. Slovenia will let you stroke the ball around, side to side in areas of the pitch that don’t hurt them, all day. They are an intelligent team that will do their best not to get dragged out of position.

          Reply

      • Posted by Gino on 2010/04/15 at 10:09 PM

        I came across this website a few months ago. George, I’m pretty sure you’ve already seen this but maybe some Stateside fans haven’t. Not much in terms of player or even team analysis but a good synopsis of Slovenia’s WC qualifying campaign.

        http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/football/world_cup_2010/8394670.stm

        Reply

  5. It’s hard to argue with that. We’re sort of the Liverpool of the international scene.

    Regularly winning against teams without as much class that are very well organized is the biggest difference between the top 7 teams and the next 10-15 teams. Even the best teams sometimes struggle with this and often rely on that extra bit of individual brilliance to ultimately tell. There is no doubt we should beat Slovenia, but they are one of the mid-tier Euro sides that sometimes give us trouble with their tactical team-based approach. More on that soon.

    First, let me formulate a theory of everything for the World Cup:

    Basically, you can divide the World Cup teams into a few Favorites (Brazil, Spain), the Contenders (the remaining 5 seeded teams), Advancers (Expecting to advance – sometimes 2 of these in a group) which form the upper half and a bit of the table, the rest of the table consists of Participants (hoping to spring an upset to advance) and Celebrants (the handful that are just happy to be in the Big Cup and are hoping to play spoiler by winning a match).

    As George said, matches against more evenly matched sides tend to be the most open, if you adjust for a teams general tactical tendencies. Some teams are always going to try to outgun their opponent, even if its Brazil.

    The challenge for many of the Advancers is to be able to play two ways – a defensively well-organized counterattacking game against better teams while taking the initiative to break down lesser teams in their group. Participants generally only have to play one way and hope for good results. Since breaking down an opponent playing defensively in successive matches is difficult, few teams come through the group stage without having dropped points somewhere.

    In the later rounds, the Contenders sometimes have trouble adjusting their approach when going up against the Favorites after 3 group matches taking the impetus. After playing to get through to the knock-out round, Favorites and Contenders come up against Advancers and Participants who have needed those results from the start so we get some upsets.

    Ultimately, given the short time to prepare between matches, the group/knockout World Cup format favors teams that only have to play with one approach throughout the tournament. This is reflected in the tendency to get unexpected teams in the quarters and usually at least 1 in the semis, as well as the fact that only a handful of countries have won the World Cup.

    Reply

  6. Posted by MHC on 2010/04/15 at 11:12 AM

    I think it basically comes down to this – Slovenia, while not chopped liver, could be fairly said to be qualitatively inferior (overall) to the USMNT. However, and I believe Matt’s statistic is correct, Slovenia’s D was the stingiest in the group stage of qualifying. Robert Koren aside (and I think he’s a very able finisher and particularly adept at causing just general trouble), it’s really a stiff backline that will be most perplexing to Bradley&Bradley, ltd.

    George brings up a good point – if we’re playing an offensive, midfield possession game (and I think we will because the Slovenian midfield does not appear to be a terribly menacing force) – it exactly opens up those opportunities for a Slovenian counterattack.

    My biggest fear is that the US will fend up some probing attacks in the first ten mins, gain extended possession, do some kind of lame turnover from Rico Clark or something and get blitzed by a solid counterattack. After we’re down one, I can see our boys just wilt.

    Reply

    • MHC, I definitely agree, although I’d be surprised to see Rico Clark on the pitch. I’d think that Bradler Jr, Edu, and Feilhaber would all see time before him at center mid, and there might be even more contenders now that Clark is wasting away on the Frankfurt bench. He might be the one player who really hurt his World Cup status by going to play overseas. Bad timing on his part, at least as far as the WC is concerned.

      Reply

      • Posted by MHC on 2010/04/15 at 11:55 AM

        Oh for sure, I agree. I decided to go with Rico because he seemed 1) a likely contender for that kind of error (Rico – if you’re reading this, my apologies) and 2) I really didn’t want to jinx Young Bradley or my boy Feilhabermeistersson. Or Edu, who has managed to impress me a lot lately.

        Reply

    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/04/15 at 1:34 PM

      MHC – “Slovenia,…said to be qualitatively inferior (overall) to the USMNT” – no, they are definitely inferior to the USA player for player, and anything other than a victory would be an utter disaster and disappointment. It’s OK to speak the truth – the USA are better than Slovenia!!

      The issue is whether you perform on the day and deserve to win…

      Reply

  7. Posted by Antonio H. on 2010/04/15 at 1:23 PM

    Don’t forget about the “dirty” goals created by Chuck, Jr, etc.

    Reply

  8. Posted by stephen on 2010/04/15 at 3:14 PM

    See if you can catch a replay of “Contenders” on FSC. They have some good back ground on them and their march to WC.
    s

    Reply

  9. Posted by Bob on 2010/04/16 at 3:40 AM

    I don’t know if this is a good comparison or not, but is the USMNT better than the Russian national team? If Russia was in our group instead of Slovenia, who would be the favorite? Was Russia suppose to win easily over Slovenia? Did Slovenia score early and then hang on, or did they dominate the game? The answer to these questions may help us understand a little better how we should fair against Slovenia.

    Reply

    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/04/16 at 5:18 AM

      I would be more worried about facing Russia than Slovenia. Slovenia qualified on away-goals (fair and square) but in my opnion, it was slightly fortunate. Russia were the best side over the two legs (Slovenia got a very lucky away goal, and Russia were reduced to 10-men in the 2nd leg) but c’est la vie…

      Reply

  10. [...] that’s true of course, but they’ll have five days to regroup no matter the result. A beatable Slovenia squad awaits in a match that is truly the American’s most important game of the [...]

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  11. [...] Guest Post: The Mystery of Slovenia [...]

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  12. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/04/26 at 12:08 PM

    Watching Crystal Palace vs. West Brom. Will be keeping an “eagle” eye on Koren. Not sure how much effort West Brom will put in considering they’re already promoted to the big time…

    Reply

  13. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/04/26 at 12:58 PM

    Koren has been pretty quiet first half. Early in the half, when he has had the ball, Palace have easily dispossesed him or crowded him out. He’s given away some unnecessary fouls too.
    1st half summary: Koren, at times, has looked tidy on the ball, but there has been no end product.

    Reply

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