Milivoje Novakovic is an irascible figure for Slovenia, and could be a threat to the US defense on June 18.
Giuseppe Bellini/Getty

The Throw-In: Slovenia could prove deadly to US’ Cup hopes


You know that old saying that goes, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don't?” That may be the mantra of Group C at the World Cup.

The US know exactly what they’re in for in their opener on June 12 against England: a tough, big team full of big-name players with loads of experience: Rooney, Gerrard, Lampard, Terry, Ferdinand and all.

And I’ll be honest: I’m not all that worried. Look, few expect the Yanks to pull off the upset of the No. 8 team in the world. Yes, they’ve proven that, when they’re on their game, they can tangle with the big boys.

But the odds say Fabio Capello’s crew can put them down. So if the US do get a point – or even a win – a week from Saturday in Rustenburg, well, to me, that’s a massive bonus and a great way to start the World Cup.

What I’m worried about is the second game in Johannesburg six days later. Regardless of what happens against England, the result of this one could make the difference between the US advancing or not.

Slovenia are the devil we don’t know. But we’ll find out a bit more about Matjaz Kek’s squad on Friday, when they play their send-off match against New Zealand in the comfy confines of Stadion Ljudski in Maribor.

This is Slovenia’s first and only pre-Cup match before the Big Show begins. And folks, this is one where you’ll want to pay attention.

Slovenia aren’t a star-laden side, except for a couple veterans of the Bundeliga and Serie A. They don’t bowl you over with slick ball control, tidy counterattacking skills or highlight-reel scoring. But they’re organized and get results. And for Bob Bradley’s crew, it’s almost like staring into a mirror.

This is a team that shut down one of Europe’s best attacks in qualifying by frustrating the hell out of them, getting inside Russia’s heads and, ultimately, making them implode. This is a unit that relies on team play, defense, discipline and the odd explosion or two of individual talent. It sounds eerily familiar when you look at their personnel.

They’ve got a big-time keeper in Udinese’s Samir Handanovic who, like Tim Howard, has been a brick wall for a mid-table squad in a top league. Their top scoring threat is Milivoje Novakovic, an irascible figure who has a history of clashes with coaches, but when he’s on a hot streak, can be near impossible to stop – not unlike a certain hip-hopping Southern Texan.

They’ve got a man-mountain of a center back in 6-foot-3 Bostjan Cesar, who leveraged outstanding play at a smaller club to a shock big-money move to Marseille, but has yet to show that top-level consistency. How does “Gooch” translate into Slovenian?

They’ve got a slick attacker in Valter Birsa who lines up behind the strikers or to the right but is probably their most dangerous attacker (i.e. Landon Donovan).

Their captain, Robert Koren, is a cagy veteran who can deliver silky-smooth passes from central midfield and can move from box to box with ease. (OK, so Claudio Reyna is retired, but I couldn’t resist that comparison).

But more than anything, they have a coach in Kek who is an absolute preparation freak and a devotee of extensive scouting. He demands everyone be on the same page, fosters an underdog spirit and stresses defense from everyone on that field – i.e., if we do the little things, we can beat anyone on any given day. And he’s backed it up.

Mr. Bradley, say hello to your long-lost Balkan philosophical equal.

Here’s where they’ve one-upped the US, though: They’ve been able to field the same Starting XI fairly consistently in every game, without having to answer depth questions after every result or dealing with injuries.

And their defense is about as consistent as you can get. In qualifying, they allowed only four goals, the fewest of any European team. As tight as the US squad is, it’s possible Slovenia are even tighter.

Let’s assume, for a minute, that the US fail to defeat England while Slovenia beat Algeria in their opener. That means the Americans will enter the Slovenia match desperately needing a result. It could be the deciding match of Group C. And it’ll be riveting.

With the US’ depth problems on attack, it’s going to be tough to pierce the organized Slovenian defense. Conversely, the way they’re able to pass diagonally will test the unset US back line. This won’t be a game where a brilliant goal or a dazzling passing sequence stands out. It’s likely to be a tactical chess match to see who can manufacture a goal and hold the line.

And at the end of the day, it could mean the difference for the second spot in Group C. So if you’re a US fan and you want to know what we’re up against, find a pirate web feed of Slovenia-New Zealand at 2:45 p.m. ET on Friday.

Not that we encourage such things at the Throw-In. But sometimes you have to dance with the devil a little to know exactly with whom you’re dealing.

Follow managing editor Jonah Freedman as he reports daily from South Africa starting next week. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.

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