JOHANNESBURG // When the United States face the Group C leaders Slovenia today, the pressure is on the Americans. Cushioned by three points from their opening victory over Algeria, Slovenia can afford to lose and still have a chance of advancing to the second round - albeit from a tough last group match against England. For the Americans, who earned a surprising 1-1 draw with England in their opening match, avoiding a defeat is more crucial.
"The game against Slovenia is going to determine if we get out of the group or not," Oguchi Onyewu, the US defender, said. A defeat would leave the Americans dangerously close to elimination. While a draw could be enough, the Americans need to defeat Slovenia to enter the last group-stage match against Algeria with any kind of comfort. Slovenia, a nation of only two million inhabitants, who gained independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, are not at England's level in international football. But they have earned a reputation for producing upset victories over bigger nations in crucial matches.
Slovenia stunned Russia in a two-match play-off to qualify for the World Cup. Romania and Ukraine have also missed major tournaments after stumbling against the Slovenes. After losing all three matches in their only previous trip to the World Cup in 2002, Slovenia are already doing better this time around, thanks to the second-half goal against Algeria by Robert Koren, the team's captain. Suddenly, advancing to the second round is not just a possibility, it is "our goal," said Matjaz Kek, Slovenia's coach.
"We have the opportunity to make our dreams come true already after the second game," he said. "That would be a sensation, but I'm sure we are capable of it." Slovenia have sounded optimistic, even confident, that they can beat the US. Still, Kek said the Americans are coming into the match as favourites, given their higher Fifa ranking and the fact they made it to the final of the Confederations Cup last year.
The US are ranked No 14; Slovenia are No 25. Because Slovenia probably will rely on counterattacks, there has been speculation that Bob Bradley, the US coach, might consider starting Jose Torres in midfield in place of Ricardo Clark in an effort to increase possession. "That's what I do with my club team," said Torres, who plays for Eintracht Frankfurt in Germany. "I love controlling the ball and controlling the pace of the game."
Like the US, who equalised on a blunder by Robert Green, the England goalkeeper, Kek's team got a lucky break against Algeria as Koren's shot in the 79th minute bounced into the goal off the arm of Faouzi Chaouchi, their goalkeeper. Tim Howard, the US goalkeeper, was injured in the first half against England when Emile Heskey's boot struck him in the ribs below the breastbone. But Howard said he would be ready to face Slovenia, even if it meant getting injections of painkillers. "It's probably going to be more of a tactical battle and a bit of a chess match," Howard said of the Slovenia match. "Is there still another group game? Sure. But I think we've got to go all out and try to get this result." * AP