I’ve seen both of these nations in major competitions. As you may have noticed from the Slovenia-Algeria report, I saw the Slovenians at Euro 2000. The USA however, were one of the teams playing at my first live World Cup match in 2006 – their opponents were Italy, in what was one of the games of the tournament. And that was the point at which my view on American’s playing football changed. It was all down to the fans who travelled to Germany. On the upside, they were very enthusiastic about the game, and (unlike the perception from the more ignorant sections of our media – i.e. most of it) were very knowledgeable about the game, as you would expect people who’ve flown thousands of miles for as little as one game to be. On the downside, everyone American I spoke to at the World Cup in 2006 was involved in the game. They played at various levels, they were referees, they were involved in coaching, they worked in administration for an MLS club. It may not sound like a downside, but during the season, if every football fan is involved in the game at one level or another, you wonder where the fans are coming from.
There’s a confidence about the MLS, maybe even overconfidence in the League – I’ve known MLS watchers claim the quality is similar to mid-table Premier League. That isn’t true yet, especially when you consider that the US players that are playing in the Premier League are some of the best that the country has, and they are all at mid-table Premier League sides. Not to mention that most of the English exports, with the obvious exception of David Beckham have been rejected by the Premier League long before they crossed the Atlantic. In truth the quality of the MLS these days is similar to that of the Championship, but it is improving all the time. Two to three years ago, I would have claimed it is similar to the League One. That is outstanding considering that the league has only been running since 1996. Yes, there were professional leagues in the US before the MLS arrived, but the standard of the players, the coaches, and the imports were a lot weaker.
One area where the fans aren’t overconfident, is when it comes to the National Team. With the exception of the 1930 Semi-Final and the win over England in 1950 (that provides the inspiration for today’s kit), everything the National team did before 1994 is best forgotten. However, despite good showings at two World Cup, the US have never won at a European World Cup, and have only ever beaten one European nation – a substandard Portugal in Korea in 2002. That they followed up the 2002 win with an unjust defeat to Germany, where an Tony Sanneh header was cleared off the line by the hand of Thomas Linke, only to go unnoticed by referee Hugh Dallas, has not helped. Beating European teams in a World Cup isn’t so much a monkey on their back, but something that they need to do for the rest of the World to take them seriously. That their win over Spain in the Confederations Cup last year went virtually unnoticed was a shame, as Spain were almost at full strength, but for so many, only the World Cup counts.
Within 20 seconds there’s controversy, as Clint Dempsey and Zlatan Ljubijankic jump for a ball and clash – the Slovenians surround referee Koman Coulibaly, as replays show that Dempsey led with the elbow. It’s not a malicious or reckless challenge, but one that deserves a booking, but Coulibaly keeps his cards in his pockets. The US have the best of the possession of the opening stages. Robbie Findley shows some great promise in the early stages. First he breaks the offside trap from a Michael Bradley ball down the left hand side, and shows Miso Brecko enough to win a corner. Later he does a small bit of ball juggling to beat Brecko, but can’t deliver a good enough ball. But for all their possession, Slovenia create the most chances. Oguchi Onyewu puts Zlatan Ljubijankic off enough at a corner to win the goal kick, and Novakovic has a great chance to score, only to fail to connect with a perfectly flighted cross. And before the first 15 minutes are up, Slovenia take the lead. Slovenia move down the left hand side with no apparent thread, and Valter Birsa receives the ball 30 yards out in the centre of the pitch. Birsa takes a couple of touches, and with the US defence backing off, he hits a magnificent 25 yard strike that leaves Tim Howard blamelessly rooted to the spot. 1-0.
As with the game on Sunday, the Slovenians are content to sit back, but the US have a greater threat than the Algerians posed. Not only does this mean that the US have to up their game (something which they are capable of), but it also means that they’re prone to the counter attack, which the Slovenians are keen to exploit. Another sweeping cross from the left hand side almost reaches Birsa, but he seems to pull his foot away at the last moment, as the assistant referee flags for offside. Onyewu seemingly pulls Novakovic down just outside the penalty area, but the referee sees nothing wrong with it, when most would have given the Slovenians a dangerous free kick. Coilubaly finally gets a major decision right, when Bostjan Cesar brings down Jozy Altidore. Altidore is looking for the free kick, but the decision and the yellow card are both justified. Torres swings the free kick in from the right hand side of the penalty area, and forces a great save from Samir Handanovic. The resulting corner is only half cleared, and Jay DeMerit’s follows up with a header from 20 yards out, which goes wide. A bad touch from Marko Suler gives Findley the chance to break again, and Bojan Jokic puts the ball for a corner. The corner comes in, hits an unmarked Findley on the cheek, and while a goalmouth scramble ensues, Coilubaly brings the play back, and books Findley, presumably for a handball. It’s an abysmal decision, easily the worst in the tournament, and it robs Findley of a chance to play in the game against Algeria. This seems to fire up Findley, as he feeds Dempsey down the right, who fires across the goal and Brecko beats Donovan, who is poised to score. It’s the US’s best chance, followed up by their worst chance, as Cherundulo wellies a shot high over the bar. This allows Slovenia a chance for some respite, and they take it with both hands. Novakovic feeds a ball to Ljubijankic, who beats the offside trap, and leaves Cherundulo trailing in his wake, he slips the ball under Tim Howard, and Slovenia are as good as in the next round. 2-0.
The US need half time, and Torres gives the ball away in a dangerous position. His teammates cover him, and that’s his last action as he gets replaced at half time, as does the unfortunate Findley, who was their most threatening player in their first half. Maurice Edu and Benny Feilhaber replace them. The US start the second half brightly. Landon Donovan looks sharper, and Altidore almost connects with a chance, but it takes Donovan to take advantage of a Cesar mistake, he cuts inside, and scores from an acute angle. Handanovic in goal doesn’t try to save it – he just closes his eyes and hopes it doesn’t hit him, like a standing in the way of a Stuart Pearce free kick. 2-1.
Suler lands awkwardly, damaging his shoulder while challenging for the ball, and gives away a free kick. Dempsey flicks the free kick on, and Onyewu almost makes contact, but it’s offside. This is much more threatening, but Slovenia refuse to park the bus – mainly because of the number of misplaced passes the US make. Another sweeping cross (Slovenia’s favoured tactic) is punched for a corner by Tim Howard, and the corner eventually reaches Robert Koren who hits the ball a lot less sweeter than he did at the weekend. The US are being patient, trying pick their spots. Altidore almost gets free but Suler almost fortuitously treads on the ball. Another US free kick sees Dempsey concentrate too much on wrestling Aleksander Kirm to the floor to worry about the ball. A Maurice Edu handball is almost punished by another quality Birsa cross, but Howard clears under pressure. Suler is booked for cynically hauling down Altidore on the edge of the area, as he was running onto a pass. Donovan hits the resulting freekick low, and it rebounds to Altidore who hits it straight at the keeper. Kirm goes into the book for a studs up challenge from behind, that some referees would have given a red for. A long throw comes in, a US player gets sandwiched by two Slovenians, and Altidore fires in a shot, but the referee pulls it back for a foul that only he sees. The Slovenian tactic now is to break up play by continually fouling Americans in midfield. As tactics go, it’s not a good one, as not only is Coilubaly adding to his book like it’s a Panini sticker album, but the US are threatening with each free kick. Jokic fouls Donovan, gets booked, US have dangerous set piece which they waste, which is the signal for a change of tactic as three Slovenians have entered the book in six minutes. The US bring on a striker (Hercules Gomez) for a defender (Onyewu), and go to a 3-4-3, and push everyone further forward. Bradley forces a save from Handanovic, which is a sign of things to come. A cross is floated in, Altidore heads it down, and Bradley is on the end of it. 2-2.
Maurice Edu “scores” from a Landon Donovan free kick, but it’s disallowed. Bradley is offside, but Edu is not. There are about six different fouls going on, but only the referee knows why it has been ruled out. Man of the Match Birsa is replaced by Zlatko Dedic, and that shows that Slovenian coach Matjaz Kek is serious about winning, as Dedic is a striker. Slovenia’s last chances of normal time sees a weak Novakovic header comfortably saved by Howard, and a speculative Aleksander Radosavljevic shot parried for a wasted corner. The three minutes of time added on peter out, and the best game and best comeback of the tournament to date end with possible injuries as Landon Donovan slip on the ball and land on his face and Nejc Pechnik gets carried off as collateral damage from Donovan’s fall. Gary Lineker in the studio patronisingly tells any watching Americans, that this is what makes the game so good. Guess what. They already know.
Thanks again to Historical Football Kits for the kind use of their graphics.