JOHANNESBURG - They played 62 games over four years just to get ready for the World Cup, convinced obsessive preparation and attention to detail would turn around their fortunes after a quick exit in 2006.
But the stark reality is this: All that work will amount to nothing unless the United States gets at least a tie against Slovenia today.
“Obviously a loss would put us out. That’s something that’s going to be in the back of our minds,” American captain Carlos Bocanegra said Thursday following a chilly workout at Ellis Park.
Following an opening 1-1 draw against favored England last weekend, the Americans need at least one point on a day when the English face Algeria in the late game at Cape Town. With a victory against the smallest of the 32 nations in the tournament, the U.S. would take a huge step toward reaching the knockout stage of the tournament for the first time since 2002.
Four years ago, the U.S. rebounded from an opening 3-0 loss to the Czech Republic and played to a rugged 1-1 tie with eventual champion Italy — only to get eliminated with a sloppy 2-1 defeat to Ghana.
“What makes teams great is the teams that do it three, four, five, six, seven times in row,” U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan said. “We haven’t proven we can do that yet. And that’s what we need to prove this time.”
An underdog against the English, the U.S. heads into this game a rare World Cup favorite in a matchup of nations at opposite ends of the size scale. At almost 310 million, the United States has the largest population among the 32 World Cup countries. At 2 million, Slovenia has the smallest.
“It’s a great match and it can solidify Slovenia on the global map of football,” said Slovenia coach Matjaz Kek, whose team would reach the second round for the first time with a win.
Slovenia, which wears distinctive striped jerseys that resemble Charlie Brown’s shirts, pretty much views the United States the way the Americans look at soccer powers. At the World Cup for just the second time, the Slovenes are ranked 25th, 11 spots behind the U.S.
Slovenia is seeking to follow its opening 1-0 win over Algeria with a victory that would be received with cries of “Ayoba,” a South African expression used for surprise.
Midfielder Andrej Komac doesn’t think a Slovene win would be so surprising. He boldly predicted victory, prompting U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard to respond: “Talk is cheap.”
Howard expects to play, with a painkiller injection if necessary, after taking a boot from Emile Heskey in the ribs last Saturday.
Exactly one month after training began in Princeton, N.J., Howard and the other U.S. players worked out in the pink-purple twilight at Ellis Park, many wearing ski caps, sweat pants and gloves in the 46-degree cold. The clunky clothes made it seem more like a team preparing for an autumn football game than the pride of the U.S.
The United States has played twice before at Ellis Park, a downtown stadium that opened in 1928 and holds 55,686 for the World Cup. In November 2007, the Americans beat South Africa 1-0 on a Steve Cherundolo goal. Last June, the U.S. took a two-goal halftime lead against Brazil in the Confederations Cup final only to lose, 3-2.
Players felt mixed emotions on returning.
“We’ve learned from moments where we’ve stuck together and pulled out important wins,” coach Bob Bradley said. “We’ve learned from days when we let a game get away from us.”
Eastern European nations have presented defenses against the U.S. that have amounted to an Iron Curtain. Since returning to the World Cup in 1990 following a 40-year absence, the Americans are 0-5 against Eastern European teams and have been outscored 13-2.
Against England, the U.S. fell behind on Steven Gerrard’s fourth-minute goal but tied it on Clint Dempsey’s 25-yard, two-hop shot that went through the arms of goalkeeper Robert Green.
Falling behind has been an American weakness. The U.S. conceded the first goal in six of 10 final-round qualifiers last year but rebounded to win three and tie two.
Still, going back to 1930, the Americans have never won a World Cup match in which they trailed.
Slovenia beat Algeria on Robert Koren’s 79th-minute shot that was misjudged by Fawzi Chaouchi and bounced off the goalkeeper’s arm.
Outshot 11-6, Slovenia succeeded with its counterattacks, which could prompt Bradley to start Jose Torres in place of Ricardo Clark to try to increase possession.
“In theory it seems like it’s easier because they don’t have a Rooney or a Lampard or a Gerrard,” Donovan said, “but the reality is when you’ve got a team that plays well together, it becomes very difficult to beat a team like that and it usually comes down to one or two plays.”
The Slovenia media guide has a particularly apt message, considering the opponent: “Never judge greatness by size.”
Slovenia, 0-3 at the 2002 World Cup, qualified for 2010 by upsetting Russia in a playoff last November, a triumph that prompted Slovenia Prime Minister Borut Pahor to fulfill his promise to clean the players’ boots.
With Koren, goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, midfielder Valter Birsa and forwards Zlatko Dedic and Milivoje Novakovic, the Slovenes have several well-regarded players.
“We watch other leagues around the world and we’re familiar with the guys,” Bocanegra said. “We’re not going to go into it taking anybody lightly just because maybe the rest of the world doesn’t know their names.”