PREVIEW: UNITED STATES - SLOVENIA
The U.S. men's national team face the first of two tests against unfamiliar foes on Friday, when they return to Ellis Park in Johannesburg for a must-win encounter with Slovenia.
Having nabbed a vital point in their crucial battle with England in Rustenburg last Saturday, Bob Bradley's men must carry the momentum into their second Group C game and secure a result against an unknown but dangerous Slovenian squad.
Coach Bradley is not expected to alter the lineup that featured in the 1-1 win over Fabio Capello's men, especially after receiving news this week that go-to keeper Tim Howard survived an injury scare picked up in that game.
The Everton netminder sustained a kick in the ribs during a collision with Emile Heskey that kept him floored for several minutes. Following a scan earlier this week, the 31 year-old was deemed fit and ready to stand between the posts on Friday.
Bradley's preferred backline can expect to get the nod, with Oguchi Onyewu and Jay Demerit fending off the Slovenian striking duo of Milivoje Novakovič and Zlatko Dedič. Veterans Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo, the oldest non-keepers in Bradley's twenty-three, will mind the flank and look to connect with wingers Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan.
The American midfield could see a change of personnel following their difficulty in containing Steven Gerrard and Emile Heskey on England's sole goal last Saturday. In what would be his first World Cup appearance, José Torres may be called upon to step in for Ricardo Clark, while Maurice Edu could see his first tournament action as a substitute.
The expected up-front pairing of Jozy Altidore's strength and Robbie Findley's speed will try to break down the Slovenian defence, but will face the formidable task of getting past the hands of Samir Handanovič.
Coming off a 1-0 win over Algeria in the first match, Matjaz Kek's Slovenian squad face an uphill group stage schedule and will also need a result in this match to maintain any hope of advancing. The Udinese stalwart in the net made a few splendid saves to preserve the victory and nab the vital three points.
Former West Brom striker and current free agent Robert Koren was the hero for the Slovenians with a 80th minute goal, albeit aided by Algerian keeper Faouzi Chaouchi's grossly mistimed pounce. The Slovenian captain will pair up as usual with Aleksander Radosavljevič in the central midfield, while Andraž Kirm and Valter Birsa will man the wings.
The backline can expect to remain unchanged with Bojan Jokić, Boštjan Cesar, Marko Šuler and Mišo Brečko in support of Handanovič.
Slovenia's last loss stretches back to the November 2009 qualification playoff against Russia that saw Nejc Pečnik come off the bench and sneak in a decisive away goal in the 2-1 defeat. Zlatko Dedič followed that up in the return leg with a tap-in to send the Alpine country to their second ever World Cup finals appearance since separating from Yugoslavia.
Arbiter of last January's African Cup of Nations final between Egypt and Ghana, Malian Koman Coulibaly will officiate the match with the help of linesmen Redouane Achik from Morocco and Angolan Inacio Candido.
Although the US has never faced off against Slovenia as an independent country, the Americans will recognize Ellis Park from last year's gut-wrenching loss to Brazil in the Confederation's Cup final, when Brazil orchestrated a trio of second-half goals in the 3-2 comeback victory.