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Thrust into favorite status, U.S. on alert for letdown against Slovenia

JOHANNESBURG -- With the U.S. having negotiated what seemed to be the trickiest corner along the Group C highway -- without going over the cliff -- there's still no respite for the team in South Africa.

Thanks to the other Group C result last weekend, the Americans are now on the business end of what they call a "can't lose" match. Such are the cruel realities of an unforgiving tournament.

It may seem like the World Cup has only just started; some teams only got going on Wednesday. But even with an acceptable opener, a team's second match may already represent do-or-die time depending on circumstances. It appears to be falling as such for Bob Bradley's side, never mind a 1-1 tie with England that may not have left the U.S. camp singing songs of joy, but was certainly satisfactory in most minds.

Now they face the sharp edges of Friday's match in Johannesburg's Ellis Park, where winter weather has swept in. The contest against Slovenia, now suddenly in control of the four-team group after Sunday's 1-0 win over Algeria, is one that sets up poorly for the United States in many ways.

With the test passed that had been on everyone's mind for six months, the sensationally hyped opener against England, the Americans must battle to maintain the same stubborn determination against a side with substantially less "wow" factor.

That won't be easy, as the Americans are transitioning from underdog status to favored flavor, according oddsmakers, at least. And in the past the United States has more often excelled as the underdog and struggled to meet the burden of expectation as favorites.

The United States failed to hold that killer edge after a stunning upset over Portugal opened the 2002 World Cup campaign, leaving first-round fortunes in doubt. And four years ago the euphoria of a 1-1 draw with Italy, easily the high point of World Cup 2006, was soon extinguished in a bitter loss to Ghana that sent the Americans home.

"In the past I would have worried about that a little, but it's not like we were popping champagne in the locker room [after Saturday's draw with England]," Landon Donovan said this week. "We were satisfied with the point but nobody was ecstatic. ... As much that was made of the England game, we knew that was only the start of the tournament, so we understand what Friday is all about."

The players are aware that any letdown could spell doom. They say they are on the lookout for any slippage.

"That's a normal thing in sports, with all the hype around the England game," captain Carlos Bocanegra said. "You don't want to have the second game let down, so to speak.

"What might help us in this, psychologically, is that Slovenia won, and we know we can't lose this game or it will be very difficult to qualify for the second round," he said. "We're going in with the mind-set that if we lose, we're out. We're expecting England to take six points out of their next two games."

Technically, a loss won't eliminate the Americans, but it would leave them desperately dependent on unlikely results. Nor will a draw be a killer, although it would lessen the chances of safe second-round passage -- just not as much as a loss.

Goalkeeper Tim Howard reduced some degree of anxiety around the U.S.' Pretoria-based camp by declaring his bruised ribs "sensitive" but otherwise OK. He practiced Tuesday on a limited basis and is expected to gradually do more. Howard noted that the expectations and desire to play through injuries are a given at a World Cup, and that few players are really ever 100 percent fit and healthy, anyway.

"Adrenaline being the great equalizer, you can't account for that," Howard said. "You get on the field, your mind is focused on the game, it takes away from the pain."

It's not just the psychology of the match that represents a 180-degree shift. Tactically, Slovenia represents a far different challenge than England. The United States is likely to enjoy far more possession in this one, for instance, against a side content to absorb pressure and mitigate danger rather than eliminate it straight away.

For such a tiny nation (two million), the Slovenians have a tremendous amount of self-belief and, just as important, a system that works for them. They work hard all over, but especially in midfield. Slovenia is technical with the ball and organized without it. In terms of preferred style, coach Matjak Kek's team represent a 4-4-2 mirror image of the United States.

The tiny land qualified for the World Cup by astute application of defend-and-counter soccer, helping eliminate the more fancied likes of Poland, Northern Ireland and Czech Republic en route to a successful two-leg final playoff with Russia.

That opening-day victory -- even if it was on a gift goal by the Algerian 'keeper -- gives the Eastern Europeans useful leverage. The Americans need to score, because they need a win more than Slovenia, but that could direct them right into the trap.

"The biggest thing, if we do have a lot of possession, is not to get too excited and open ourselves up so they can hit us on the counterattack," Bocanegra said. "Because they are very good at that and they did very well with that on their qualifying campaign."

Bradley may be tempted to stick with the same lineup, but he does have options that could help break down the packed defense they are sure to see. Ricardo Clark was the pick as Michael Bradley's central midfield partner Saturday. The rangy Clark's ability to cover ground and willingness to sit back and screen the defense above all made him the perfect choice against the Three Lions' high-profile attackers.

But U.S. midfielder Jose Torres is a better passer, more clever in possession and more offensively capable than Clark. On the other hand, Slovenia is a big, physical side, so selecting the slight Torres doesn't come without risk.

Maurice Edu and Benny Feilhaber are more balanced, two-way midfield options. Each started one of the three World Cup tune-ups before Saturday's draw against England.

Otherwise, Bob Bradley seems set on the status quo. He hinted that he would like to see a more lively speed of thought with his pair of young front-runners. But as Slovenia's back-line foot speed may be its vulnerable point, the U.S. coach seems likely to stick with the Robbie Findley-Jozy Altidore combo up front. The U.S. back four generally held firm past that mangled fourth minute, when Oguchi Onyewu was sucked out of position and Clark failed to track Steven Gerrard. Onyewu's strength and confidence seemed to grow through the match.

The big center back's ability to hold up over a full 90 minutes removed any lingering doubts about his rehabilitated knee and his cardiovascular fitness; it was Onyewu's first full test since last October. His determined night also helped allay concerns over a back line that had precious little time together due to his eight-month injury setback.

"I felt good," Onyewu said Wednesday. "I think we were able to frustrate the English offense, keep them at bay for most of the game. Obviously, with players like that, they are going to get their chances, just like we got our chances. But as a whole, generally over 90 minutes, we were real solid."

They'll need 90 more minutes of "real solid," not to mention an evening full of "supremely alert," on Friday.

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