Slovenia, the smallest nation at the FIFA World Cup™, can clinch a second-round berth and deliver a stunning blow to the tournament's largest nation by beating the United States on Friday.
After being gifted a 1-1 opening draw with England thanks to goalkeeper Robert Green's now-infamous fumble, the US players find themselves needing a victory to overtake Slovenia, 1-0 winners over Algeria in the other Group C opener. Compared to the fast and physical pace against England, USA coach Bob Bradley said, "the Slovenia game might be more of a chess match".
Slovenia saw off the Czech Republic and Russia in FIFA World Cup qualifying. Another triumph and Slovenia also will have sent home either mighty England or a respectable US squad before the second round. "They are a hard-working team. They are organized. They have an ability to sit back a little more and still get you on the counter," Bradley said.
In a matchup of the FIFA World Cup's largest and smallest nations in population and land area, it is Slovenia, with about two million people, that can reach the last 16 by downing the United States, which has about 300 million people. "It's going to be very difficult as the tournament goes on and the results get more crucial," said US defender Oguchi Onyewu.
There was good news on the medical front on Monday as the Americans took a rest day with no practice. US goalkeeper Tim Howard, who suffered bruised ribs Saturday after being struck by England's Emile Heskey, is expected to be ready for Slovenia after a team medical staff exam found he is making "substantial improvement" with no further tests needed, a United States Soccer Federation statement said.
Bradley was pleased at how his team, with seven players making their first FIFA World Cup appearance, held strong after falling behind 1-0 to England after only four minutes, something he credited to the team's mental character. "The mentality of the group is strong," Bradley said. "We have been hardened along the way and we believe that we can play against tough teams, top teams. We know the mentality of how 90 minutes works."
Even if the Americans' only goal against England came on Green's blunder, the feeling among US players was, as defender Jay DeMerit put it, "We came out with a deserving result."
Clint Dempsey, who became only the second US player after Brian McBride to score goals in multiple FIFA World Cups, was matter-of-fact about his good fortune on what English tabloids dubbed the "Hand of Clod" goal.
"It's a goal that probably the keeper should have made a save on [but] they all count the same when they go in," Dempsey said. "We didn't keep the ball enough. We need to manage the game a little bit better but to go one goal down to England, fight our way back and end up with a draw, we will be happy with that."
US defender Steve Cherundolo has received numerous well-wishing e-mails from pleased supporters back home. "The general public is proud of our performance and that's something this team can be proud about and build on," he said. "At the end of the day, results matter more than anything. No matter how you play, nobody wants a loser."