It’s official: a perfectly good Thursday afternoon, and I’m sitting in here quaking at the thought of a picturesque mountain nation with a population smaller than that of my not-very-big home metro area. A nation that calls its national football team the Green Dragons. The United States sends its national side, fresh from a dramatic (and absurd and hilarious and tactically mature and composed) 1-1 victory over England, against Slovenia in tomorrow’s crucial World Cup group fixture. And I, for one, could not feel more terror at the prospect.
Oh, right—Slovenia supposedly puts the “S” in the EASY (England, Algeria, Slovenia, Yanks) group, and US manager Bob Bradley undoubtedly pencilled in three points from this match when he did his preliminary math. If you get all Soccernomics and start comparing population (over 100 Americans for every Slovene, etc.) and GDP (suffice it to say, Slovenia measures its in plain-old billions, rather than trillions), the US has got this. Even on the third axis of the Soccernomic predictive matrix, international experience, the US should roll, by virtue of the fact that Slovenia didn’t exist as an independent state until not so long ago.
However, I see bad mojo oozing out of this one. To start with, there’s the Nickname Gap. I mentioned the Green Dragons—fanciful but, really, pretty cool for a frosty micro-state at the edge of the Balkans. While there have been a number of efforts to devise a decent nickname for the US team, none has stuck. (I personally pushed hard for “The White Buffalo,” to little apparent avail.) In a battle between the Green Dragons and an entity referred to even by its friends as “USMNT,” I think the romantic flying serpents own the edge.
Then, there is the Opportunity Gap. Despite the halting nature of our footballing progress, the United States now expects to go to every World Cup. While the implications of this match are significant for our current squad, everyone involved with the sport in this country expects many more World Cup matches in the future. For Slovenia, this is quite simply the greatest single sporting opportunity in national history. (This is a country, let us consider, where the biggest sports hero so far is arguably a dude who swims really long rivers.) The Americans can become marginally more famous fringe-sport celebrities if they win. The Slovenians can become national icons for the rest of their lives.
And, yes, there is the Kaiserlich und Koeniglich Gap. The United States simply does not play well against teams from nations that were once, in whole or part, subject to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. In 1990, we lost to Czechoslovakia. In 1998, we lost to Yugoslavia. In 2002, we got strafed by Poland, of all nations. In 2006, the Czech Republic put our whole tournament on ice before it even got started. So we’re not really just up against Slovenia here; we’re obviously taking on the undead spirit of the House of Habsburg.
Factor in the unhappy truth that eight long years have passed since Team America Fighting scored a World Cup goal that wasn’t: 1) a farcical own-goal; 2) a Clint Dempsey wonderstrike; or 3) both at the same. All this leaves me decidedly uneasy as we prepare to grapple with these sinister ham-eaters from the mountains.