World Cup: U.S. Favored Against Slovenia

The U.S. soccer team on Friday plays its second match of the World Cup against Slovenia.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Okay. It's not exactly Lakers-Celtics, but we do have a matchup today in the World Cup: U.S.-Slovenia. Here's NPR's Mike Pesca.

MIKE PESCA: The World Cup, where Jabulani�meets Ljubljana. �Jabulani�is the name of the ball and Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia, the next opponent for the U.S. Slovenia actually has fewer people than Lesotho, a kingdom located entirely within the boundaries of South Africa.

Slovenia's population, the smallest of any country in the World Cup, is less than one percent of that of the United States, the most populous country here, though not the populated with soccer fans.

If you want to familiarize yourself with the Slovenian style of play, remember this: The Slovenes, they're slow. They're mean.

All right. No aspersions. They are slow. I stand by that, but they're not actually mean. A nicer way to put it might be...

Mr. JAY DEMERIT (Team USA): Oh, they're good. They're big physical guys.

PESCA: To hear U.S. defender Jay DeMerit, the U.S. should expect plenty of lowered Slovene shoulders and sharp elbows.

Mr. DEMERIT: On the mental side, we're going to have to be ready to fight. We're going to have to be ready for another physical battle. And, you know, I think that's going to be very important, to try to contain a team like Slovenia, who is very willing to work together to try to make our day difficult.

PESCA: Being mentally ready to battle, as DeMerit mentioned, was perhaps made easier by the example of Tim Howard, the American goalkeeper and man of the match against England. After being cleated by Emile Heskey in the 36th minute, Howard's toughness kept him in the game and his play blunted England's firepower.

Howard's backup, Marcus Hahnemann, wouldnt heap praise on the first stringer if he didnt mean it. Hahnemann's words make clear that Howard, who will once again start for the U.S., is an inspiration.

Mr. MARCUS HAHNEMANN (Team USA): A lot lesser people would've crumbled. Most people would've just walked off. If you dont have that strong mentality, you can't go on.

PESCA: The Slovenian attack is not expected to be nearly as dynamic as that of the English, but the team comes into the game as the group's only winner, and U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan says they deserve respect.

Mr. LANDON DONOVAN (Team USA): They're just going to be solid. They're not going to be spectacular, but they're going to be a very solid team.

PESCA: Maybe Donovan, in this, his third World Cup, would be the best player to recognize the shift that's going on - solid but not spectacular? That was the description of the U.S. side in past World Cups. Actually, it was a kind spin on what the U.S. brought to bear. Now the U.S. with a win will be in excellent position to advance. And whereas once the U.S. was the team that tried to creep up on opponents, now Captain Carlos Bocanegra says the U.S. must gird itself against the creepers.

Mr. CARLOS BOCANEGRA (Team USA): When you do have a good result against an England, you know, you can't have that letdown against the so-called teams that are not the favorites in the group or the big teams around the world. So that's an important space for us to make sure we can keep our level high and, you know, get results against the other teams in the group because that's what is most important.

PESCA: The U.S. will be playing for the only time in group play in Johannesburg in a stadium that seats more than 70,000 fans. That's a great soccer crowd for the U.S. But for some Slovene perspective, consider this: If you counted every Slovenian male between the ages of 18 and 40, the number would be a little bit under 350,000. That means that a fifth of the Slovenian potential player pool could fit in that stadium. Of course it only takes 11 of them to win.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, Johannesburg, South Africa.

INSKEEP: So we figured out Slovenian demographics but we still have a mystery about North Korea. The North Koreans played powerhouse Brazil in their opening match of World Cup competition earlier this week and lost 2-1. No surprise there. The mystery is that four North Korea players were no-shows for the game.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

The usually secretive North Koreans have been mum about why the players were missing, but it's sure to be one of the questions asked when the North Koreas hold a press conference today.

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