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WORLD CUP

Bouncing into battle

The U.S. and its next opponent, Slovenia, both benefited from goalkeeper mistakes.

June 14, 2010|Grahame L. Jones

IRENE, SOUTH AFRICA — What goes around comes around, especially when it comes to the strange and wobbling sphere that is the 2010 World Cup ball.

On Saturday, a goalkeeping blunder saved the U.S. team when England's Robert Green fumbled a bouncing shot by Clint Dempsey off his gloves and into his own net. That miscue gave the U.S. a 1-1 tie.

On Sunday, a goalkeeping blunder hurt the U.S. team when Algeria's Fawzi Chaouchi allowed an on-target but relatively easy-to-handle shot by Slovenia's Robert Koren to bounce off his arm and into the net.

The 79th-minute goal in Polokwane was enough to earn Slovenia a 1-0 victory, its first ever in World Cup play, and vault it above the U.S. and England into first place in Group C.

If Slovenia -- the smallest nation in the tournament, with a population not much larger than that of Phoenix -- defeats the U.S. on Friday afternoon in Johannesburg, it will clinch its place in the second round.

And leave the U.S. in serious trouble.

"Slovenia played a tactical game," U.S. Coach Bob Bradley said Sunday night. "They are well-organized and solid defensively. They got a good goal from Koren, who has been an important player for Slovenia throughout qualifying."

Earlier in the day, at the U.S. team's base camp in rural Irene, Bradley had talked more extensively about the next challenge facing his team.

"I think it will be a different kind of game," he said. "Obviously, we'll watch today's game to get another look at exactly what they do. But they're a hard-working team, they're organized, they have the ability at times to sit back a little bit more and get you on the counter.

"So my overall assessment is that the pure speed and the physicality of last night's game, that probably is on the very high end. The Slovenia game in some ways might be a little bit more of a chess match."

The U.S. will have to get off to a better start than it did against England, when it fell behind after only four minutes.

Defender Steve Cherundolo, the only player made available to the media on Sunday, said he was not overly troubled by that.

"I don't want to say we had a slow start," he said. "Maybe [it was] a combination of nerves and England being really good last night. More important is the result at the end of the game.

"If we had scored a goal early and given one up late, I think we'd be disappointed we didn't get three points. But if you give one up early and then equalize, you're happy with a point.

"This team is all about getting results, and we found a way to do that last night."

Cherundolo said that with the first game over, "some guys may be a little less nervous" than they were Saturday, when eight U.S. players made their World Cup debut. The Slovenia match should be different.

"I don't think it'll be any easier," he said, "but I do think everybody will be gunning for three points come Friday, and that has to be our goal."

Getting a point against England, Cherundolo said, was vital to the team's hopes of advancing in the 32-nation tournament.

"A loss in your first game in the World Cup is devastating to your chances of making the next round," he said, "so really the most important thing is that point. The guys are really excited about our chances now."

Bradley suggested there might be a change or two in Friday's starting lineup but did not elaborate.

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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