It is USA vs. Slovenia.
The two play today, and a loss for USA will virtually eliminate the Americans from the World Cup. A win will put USA in position to get to Round 2. And a tie will leave everything to play for in the final opening-round Group C match against Algeria.
Slovenia, you say?
Isn’t Slovenia a mere remnant of a country – a demographic hiccup of 2 million people? In qualifying, didn’t it lose a match to lightweight Northern Ireland? And in its only other World Cup appearance in history (2002), didn't it lose all three games?
All true. And yet if you still think Slovenia doesn’t present a serious threat, you haven’t been paying attention.
America has developed into a team with a bit of a David vs. Goliath complex.
The best teams bring out the best in the US. In four of the past five World Cups, the US has punched above its weight in at least one opening-round match:
- 1994: USA 2-1 Colombia
- 2002: USA 3-2 Portugal
- 2006: USA 1-1 Italy
- 2010: USA 1-1 England
Yet there is a World Cup trend that is even more stark – and far more worrying – for US soccer.
All former Eastern bloc countries. All losses.
Slovenia, circa 2010, is arguably less impressive than any team on that list. Yet they present the most insidious of challenges: a game with little glamour, energy, or inspiration. And that means team USA will have little to struggle against. No Wayne Rooney on the opposite side of the ball. No fraternal battle between cultural cousins. No grand storyline that paints the US as the earnest underdog against a mighty Goliath.
Instead, the game will probably be more boring than C-SPAN, if Slovenia can manage it.
In the past, they have: In 10 qualifying round games, Slovenia conceded four goals.
The entire game could unfold like one drawn-out hockey power play, with American fans impatiently yelling to their players, “Shoot!” But if America is going to stake its claim to being a rising power in international soccer, it must learn how to navigate these cagey games of soccer cat-and-mouse as well as the pulsating ones.
In the North American region, there are no teams like the Slovenians – chessmen as much as soccer players. Measured. Disciplined. Efficient. The USA has rarely fared well against such teams, lacking that tactical discipline itself and not having the skill to overcome the deficiency.
Yet this is how progress is measured. Great teams get the results they need, especially in games that fail to stir the heart to poetry.
For the USA, glory will not come in this game. Yet without this game, there will very likely be no glory at all.
As much as England – more than England, perhaps – this is a test to see how far the USA has or has not come.
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