There are varying opinions on whether the Slovenia game is a must-win or must-tie; I'm in the tie camp. If the US ties and England beats Algeria as expected, the final matchday will see Slovenia and England enter with four points and the US two. The US would go through if they win against Algeria and…
- England wins
- Slovenia wins
- there's a draw and the US wins by two
- there's a draw and either Slovenia or England scores fewer total goals than the US.
That is almost all possibilities that include a win over Algeria. So they can't lose. But a tie is far from tragic.
On the other hand, a win gives them more leeway against Algeria and could see them escape the knockout game against Germany everyone would dearly like to after the machine mistook Australia for Austria and acquired plenty of lebensraum. Winning is good.
Unfortunately, the US is not going to have a couple of pieces of key information before they go into Friday's matchup against Slovenia: what happened in the England-Algeria game, and if Germany as terrifying as it seemed or if Australia just a team that can give up four goals to anyone. If they knew these key bits of information they would know whether they should attempt to win by a lot or just win.
Without that information and given the situation in the group, the right answer appears to be "just win." This, I'm sad to say, may see Ricardo Clark start again.
Slovenia, as you might expect given their population is approximately equivalent to Iowa, is a boring defensive team. They do have a few talented attacking players but their overall lack of talent sees them play a traditional 4-4-2 that you could call a 4-4-1-1- if you wanted, or a 4-2-2-2, or… well, a lot of different things. A 4-4-1-1 plays pretty similarly to what England does with Rooney and Heskey—Rooney comes deep for the ball, Heskey presses up the pitch—and so you could see some situations similar to the ugly breakdown that led to the England goal, hopefully minus the ugly breakdowns.
Here's my Torres pitch: I think this actually is an argument for Dollar Store Xavi. Torres operates best as a deep-lying playmaker who does not get dragged up the pitch much. Though he's not exactly spectacular in the tackle, the Slovenia attack is not athletic enough to punish him the way he would have been against England and his presence at the back will be more consistent than Clark—who tends to get dragged out of position—and Bradley—who also tends to get dragged out of position, but at least with him there's usually a point. The US defense is less likely to get pulled out of shape when he's around and more likely to spring quick attacks that bypass the Slovenian's compact discipline as much as that is possible. Clark's positioning has been erratic at best over the last month.
SI's Jonathan Wilson describes the Slovenes as essentially identical to the US, with their best and most creative players operating as tucked-in wingers:
Slovenia's only real creativity comes from the wide midfielders, Valter Birsa and Andraz Kirm. Both tend to tuck in when Slovenia is out of possession, pulling wider when the ball is won, while still looking to cut in on the diagonal -- just as Donovan and Dempsey do. They also tend to switch during games, occasionally playing as orthodox wide men and looking to swing in crosses, but more usually playing as inside-out wingers.
The back four and the two central midfielders are defensive players first, and the central defenders are good but not great. With Slovenia set to sit back and look for the counter themselves, opportunities to break will be minimal and this might be a game for Edson Buddle and his recent run of finishing instead of a Robbie Findley more likely to waste possession and biff open nets. Buddle's also a much greater threat in the air. With a lot of the USA's offense likely to come from overlapping fullback crosses, aerial power seems preferable to speed. Also, if you're bringing in Torres you might want a little more size elsewhere for set pieces for and against.
Slovenia's goalie, unfortunately, is damn good.
I've already brought this up in the previous sections: if I was Bob Bradley I'd swap Torres for Clark and Buddle for Findley, expecting that Torres would be sufficient defensively against a side lacking the sort of middle-of-the-park power England has and more likely to hold possession and unlock the Slovenian defense. Buddle, meanwhile, is more likely to get on the end of a cross or set piece and more likely to finish any opportunity that happens to come his way.
Will Bradley actually do this? I don't know. I think you might see Clark or Edu in the first half with Torres a halftime sub if the US needs a goal. Findley… well, I reviewed the England game and he was a much better hold-up forward than Altidore, consistently bringing down long balls and getting the midfield involved in pressure situations. That more than his speed was his contribution. Against a very different opponent I'd rather have a guy to get on the end of things.
The other option is bringing on Holden, which would probably see Dempsey move up top. That's an attractive option too since Slovenia is set up to give up space on the wings and Holden is probably the USA's best winger. The USA as set up against England is exceptionally unlikely to get in a good cross. This game seems to call for more width, and Holden's about the only guy who provides that unless you want to pretend it's 2006 and DaMarcus Beasley is a good option.
Everyone except Clark and Findley is a sure starter. Those nine plus tactical whateva should be enough to get a result, but Spain-Switzerland and whatnot, and we are not Spain.