Against tiny Slovenia in 2010 World Cup, U.S. soccer team needs to think big

The U.S. Men's soccer team faces Slovenia Friday in its second match of group play at the 2010 World Cup. As the AP's John Mone explains, even though the U.S. got a good result against England, Slovenia is a must-win game.
By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2010

JOHANNESBURG -- The United States began this ambitious World Cup campaign against a giant in international soccer.

For all practical purposes, if the Americans wish to remain in contention for a round-of-16 berth, they will need to avoid losing to one of the smallest nations ever to qualify in the 80-year-old tournament.

On Friday at historic Ellis Park, the U.S. team, which opened last weekend against England, faces Slovenia, a nation better known for skiers than strikers. For a change, the United States (310 million) will enter a World Cup match as the bully.

"We're not going to go into it taking anybody lightly just because maybe the rest of the world doesn't know their names," captain Carlos Bocanegra said. "It's an important game for us."

Very important. With England (0-0-1) expected to defeat Algeria (0-1) late Friday, the Americans (0-0-1) cannot afford to drop points against Slovenia (1-0), which draws players from a population of about 2 million -- a pool bigger than only Northern Ireland, a three-time qualifier, and Trinidad and Tobago, which debuted in 2006.

A draw wouldn't kill their hopes of securing one of Group C's two berths but would raise the stakes immensely ahead of the meeting against Algeria on Wednesday in Pretoria.

"In all likelihood, if we lose, we are out of the tournament," midfielder Landon Donovan said. "That's the reality of the situation. As much as people put into the England game, this becomes a lot more important in that way."

Drawn into a group of modest strength, the Americans were widely expected to reach the next stage. At first glance, Slovenia wasn't supposed to get in their way. But the Green Dragons, as they are known, belie their nation's geographic smallness (think New Jersey).

The team motto: "Never judge greatness by size."

Independent since the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the Slovenians qualified for the 2000 European Championship (two draws and a loss) and 2002 World Cup (three losses amid internal quarreling).

Last fall, with Prime Minister Borut Pahor pledging to polish the players' boots if they qualified for South Africa, the Green Dragons finished second behind Slovakia in group play, conceding just four goals in 10 matches, before upsetting Russia in a two-game European playoff.

"Our squad has achieved a great evolution," Coach Matjaz Kek said. "This is not the most important match, but it is a great match [that] can solidify Slovenia in the global map of football. . . . We haven't just come here to be tourists."

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