JOHANNESBURG – A near impossible rally by the US. A near Titanic-like disaster from England. Slovenia on top of the group.
Strap in, because we’ve got a finale to Group C that will knock your socks off. Here are five things we learned from Matchday 2:
1. The US need to figure out who they are. Are they the team that plays toe-to-toe with superior opposition? Or the one that keeps suffering lapses in focus? They’d better figure it out quickly, because if they suffer another early-game breakdown against Algeria, they could find themselves on the plane home by next Thursday.
“We have to start the game a little less complacent,” Oguchi Onyewu said on Friday. “For whatever reason, we turn on the switch whenever we go down a goal. I think we have to mentally prepare ourselves better, and if that means mentally think that we’re down a goal from the start, then do so.”
2. Maurice Edu is the best choice as Michael Bradley’s partner in central midfield. Ricardo Clark played well against England, but doesn’t offer as much going forward. José Francisco Torres, sadly, wasn’t up to the challenge.
But the Americans’ tone changed dramatically when the former Toronto FC midfielder was subbed into the Slovenia game at halftime. Edu’s presence was felt immediately and he showed he can be a box-to-box threat when given the chance. And now we know what he can do on set-pieces – Rangers fans have seen him do it over and over again.
3. Slovenia are legit. This shouldn’t be a surprise. This was the team that allowed only four goals in 10 European qualifying matches, then shut down Russia in a two-leg playoff and essentially cost Guus Hiddink his job. And the US learned quickly why the Green Dragons are not to be taken lightly.
Matjaz Kek’s men may be the most team-oriented squad in the World Cup. They interplay perfectly, they wait for their chances and they are extremely dangerous. You want a perfect demonstration of what it means to “keep your lines tight?” From my view on the sidelines during the US match, Slovenia held their 4-4-2 formation so rigidly, they practically resembled a college marching band.
When they surged forward, they did so intelligently and opportunistically, usually through Valter Birsa or Milivoje Novakovic, their main danger men. England have never looked so vulnerable, and they’d better be extremely wary of Slovenia. Speaking of which...
4. Maybe England just aren’t that good. Those aren’t my words, they’re Alexi Lalas’ on ESPN. But Big Red is right. All of a sudden, Fabio Capello’s fine work in instilling discipline in a notoriously underachieving powerhouse is out the door.
England were mostly uninspiring against the US, and positively anemic against Algeria. Once again, they looked like a collection of high-priced stars who don’t seem interested in playing together. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard again didn’t look to be on the same page. Emile Heskey is a crime up top. Jamie Carragher is playing without his brains. Aaron Lennon is invisible.
Most troubling is that no one appears willing to figure out a way to get Wayne Rooney to understand that he needs to show up, and fast. The Three Lions shockingly have one point through two matches. Somewhere, Steve McClaren is surely chuckling.
5. Algeria is due for a meltdown…right? There may be no team more infuriating in the tournament than Les Fennecs. At their best, they’re capable of frustrating and shocking a superior opponent.
Just ask Egypt, who were stifled by Algeria in a one-game, winner-take-all playoff in African qualifying last November. Ask Ivory Coast, who are still at a loss to explain how they were outplayed by a smaller, slower squad in the quarterfinals of the African Cup of Nations in January. Now England know what Rabah Saadane’s men can do, too.
But for as well as Algeria can play on a given day, they’ve almost never put two consecutive quality performances together. Case in point: After dispatching Didier Drogba and gang 3-2 in the aforementioned Cup of Nations clash, they went into mega-meltdown mode against Egypt in the semis, getting three men sent off – one for a headbutt on the referee – in a 4-0 rout.
Does this mean the Algerians will sputter against the US? It’s possible. Counting on it? Big mistake. The Americans need to act, from the opening whistle next Wednesday, like their survival depends on this game. Because it absolutely does.
MLSsoccer.com managing editor Jonah Freedman is covering the World Cup from South Africa.