KNOW THE UNKNOWN
June 22, 2006 is a day those in the US soccer community would most certainly like to forget. It was on that date the US national team suffered a 2-1 loss to Ghana in Nuremburg, Germany.
This match not only knocked the US out of the World Cup, in which they had an outside chance of finishing second in their group behind eventual world champions Italy, but they also lost to a Ghana that was making its first ever World Cup appearance.
Fast forward to December 4, 2009 and the World Cup Draw in Cape Town, South Africa. Many of us were glued to our TVs or the internet anticipating who Bob Bradley's team would have to face this time around. England, as a seeded team, is drawn from the pot and the US is placed into their group. England, led by Italian coach Fabio Capello, is no stranger to the Yanks as they have played each other on several occasions.
But, wait a minute, who are these other teams in Group C with the Red, White and Blue? The draw, like in 2005, has given the US the unenviable task of taking on not one, but two teams whom the 14th ranked team in the world have never faced.
On paper, in the eyes of some experts, Group C should be a relatively easy group for the US to come out of; however, I am taking a rather cautious approach. While the Desert Foxes and the Dragons may not be the strongest of teams at the most watched sporting event in the world, they do possess a few quality players that could make the US national team work hard for their place in the knockout stages.
Making their first appearance in the World Cup since 1986, the 30th ranked team in the world will be making up for lost time in South Africa. After coming through a rough, and politically charged playoff match against rival Egypt, the 1990 African champions will see playing England, Slovenia and the US as a welcome relief from the controversy of last year. Led by coach Rabah Saadane, the North Africans will be looking to prove that they are more than a powerful team on the continent.
One of the players that the US needs to look out for is Nadir Belhadj. The former France under-18 international is a versatile player who primarily plays at left-back for recently relegated Premiership club Portsmouth, but he can also be deployed as a left- winger.
One of the strengths of the former Olympique Lyon player is his ability to hit free-kicks. Most Algerian supporters will remember the two he scored against perennial World Cup favorites Argentina in a friendly on June 5, 2007.
Having played in 11 of the 13 qualifiers for Algeria, Belhadj is certainly one of the most dependable players on the team, but discipline could be one of his problems as he amassed four yellow cards over that period.
Another player at Algeria's disposal and one that Rangers player Maurice Edu and recent free agent DaMarcus Beasley are quite familiar with is Madjid Bougherra.
While listed as a defender, the former Charlton Athletic star is known to come forward at times, adding another dimension to the attack of Algeria. His size is his biggest strength and Saadane will most likely assign him to cover Villarreal striker Josmer Altidore. This could be the matchup to lookout for when the two play on June 23rd in Pretoria if Bougherra can make a full recovery from injury.
Goals have been hard to come by for the Foxes, but 35-year old Rafik Siani could answer their call if needed. The FC Istres striker was the top scorer for the Algerians during qualifying. While he did not play particularly well against Ireland in the friendly 3-0 loss in Dublin last week, he may be their go-to guy if the other strikers do not step up.
He could be used as a late substitute in the match and the defense of the US had better pay close attention to him as he could possibly change the course of the game.
Making their second appearance at the World Cup, the Dragons from central Europe will be looking to shock the soccer world again just like they did in knocking off favorites Russia in the two-leg playoff in November. Led by Coach Matjaz Kek, the Slovenes certainly will try to make a better impression this time around as compared to their last appearance in 2002 having finished bottom of their group with no points.
The Slovenes may have 23 star players as expressed by their coach in previous interviews, but there are two that stand out from the pack.
One of the players to look out for on the 25th ranked team is striker Milivoje Novakovic. Standing over six feet tall, the FC Koln player will be a threat in the air. No doubt US center-back Oguchi Onyewu will be given the assignment of marking Novakovic on deadball situations.
But, do not think he will just be merely a target player for the Slovenes. The top scorer in 2. Bundesliga can also be relied on to take his chances on free kicks whenever the opportunity arises and is also very capable of scoring goals during the run of play.
Another player to watch is eam captain Robert Koren who played a vital role in West Bromwich Albion's promotion to the Premier League this past season. The 29-year old could possibly be the one who could surprise the US during their match on June 18 in Johannesburg as he is not afraid to attack defenders, which could lead to a frustrating time for the US backline.
While he has only scored four goals on the international stage, the former Lillestrom player is known to score some important goals at club level. So, if they have a chance at advancing to the next stage you can most certainly expect Koren to take his chances at goal. You can expect a huge tussle in the midfield between Koren and Michael Bradley as both try to stamp their authority in the match.
While the performance of the US national team will be most important to their possible qualification out of Group C, it is the scouting that will be crucial in preparing the US for these games.
Not to overlook the challenge that the Three Lions will bring along, but from watching what happened in the match against Ghana in 2006 the scouts for the US national team have got to make a thorough assessment of the Algerians and Slovenes up to last minutes before the matches begin. Playing a team for the first time can be a rather tricky task as the coaches may keep their cards close to them so as the opposition do not get a complete analysis on them.
So when looking at Algeria's recent loss to Ireland, who knows what kind of team they will really turn out to be when the festivities start on June 11th. The same could be said about the Slovenes as many experts believed the Russians would defeat them on November 18th and move on to South Africa. Bob Bradley, his staff and, most importantly, the players cannot underestimate these teams or else it will bite them on the behind later.
Odds are high that the US will qualify from their group, along with England, but they must not take either of their foes lightly as both will be looking to pull off the upset. As many analysts have said before, if the US cannot get a result against Algeria or Slovenia, then they do not deserve to come out of this group. Hopefully, we will be talking about Bob Bradley and his 23 man squad beyond the group stages.