Five Things to Know: United States vs. Slovenia

The U.S. Men's National Team will kick off the year with an international friendly at Toyota Field in San Antonio, Texas this Saturday, January 20 at 3 p.m. ET (TNT, Telemundo, Universo, MAX, Peacock, FDP).

The game will pit squads with relatively little international experience against one another, as USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter selected 17 players who are keen on securing their first caps. His Slovenian counterpart, Matjaz Kek, has also chosen 17 uncapped players.

Saturday’s friendly will conclude the team’s annual January camp, but the U.S. will return to Texas to meet Jamaica in the Concacaf Nations League semifinals at AT&T Stadium in Arlington on March 21 at 7 p.m. ET. The winner of that match will advance to the final, with the loser to the third-place match. Both of those games will be played on March 24.

FOOTBALLING HISTORY

Since becoming an independent country and national association from Yugoslavia in 1992, Slovenia has enjoyed some success. The team participated in its first tournament of consequence when it qualified for Euro 2000. The squad was eliminated after registering a 0-1-2 mark in the group stage. After it failed to book a spot in the five consecutive tournaments that followed, the Slovenians qualified the 2024 competition that will be co-hosted by Italy and Turkey.

In 2002, the Slovenians qualified for their first FIFA World Cup at Korea/Japan. They lost all three of their matches while being outscored 7-2. It wasn't until the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa that the Eastern European side reached for the competition again. In its opening match, Slovenia secured a 1-0 win over Algeria before losing a two-goal halftime lead and settling for a 2-2 draw with the USMNT. In its third and final group match, the Slovenians were eliminated via a 1-0 defeat to England. Slovenia has not reached the FIFA World Cup since.

Center back Bostjan Cesar has earned the most caps (101), performing for the national team from 2003-18. Midfielder Zlatko Zahovic is the all-time goal-scoring leader, with 35 in 80 appearances, from 1992-2004.

USMNT VS. SLOVENIA

The USMNT is undefeated (1-0-1) in two matches between the teams.

The first encounter between the two turned into a contentious affair, a 2-2 draw at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in Johannesburg, South Africa. Valter Birsa (13th minute) and Zlatan Ljubijankic (42 minute) gave Slovenia a two-goal halftime advantage. The Americans rallied behind scores by Landon Donovan (48th minute) and Michael Bradley (82nd minute) before coming so close for the game-winner in the 85th minute.

The USA, coached by Bob Bradley, contended that Maurice Edu should have been awarded the go-ahead goal in the 85th minute, but the goal was nullified via a controversial decision by referee Korman Coulibaly (Mali). Needing a victory to advance out of Group C in its final group stage match several days later, the U.S. secured a 1-0 win over Algeria on Donovan's dramatic 11th-hour goal to win the group.

In a fog-laden international friendly in Ljubljana, Slovenia on Nov. 15, 2011, the USA prevailed behind a 3-2 victory. Edson Buddle (ninth minute), Clint Dempsey (41st minute) and Jozy Altidore (penalty kick in the 43rd minute) gave the Americans a 3-1 lead, before Tim Matavz closed the gap with his second goal of the contest in the 61st minute after previously equalizing in the 26th minute. Goalkeeper Tim Howard backstopped both games vs. Slovenia.

RECENT MATCHES

In its six games since September, Slovenia recorded an impressive 5-1 record in UEFA Euro 2024 qualifying to book a spot in the tournament while outscoring their foes 15-4. The team, which plays its home games in Ljubljana, defeated Northern Ireland 4-2 on Sept. 7, 2023, as Andraz Sporar (two goals) and Benjamin Sesko scored for the hosts, who were aided by an own goal. Three days later, the Slovenians registered a 4-0 victory at San Marino as Zan Vipotnik, Jan Mlakar, Sandi Lovric and Zan Karnicnik contributed goals.

They notched another clean sheet with a 3-0 blanking of Finland at home on Oct. 14 as Sesko bagged a brace and Erik Janza added a single tally. They made it three shutouts in a row with a 1-0 win at Northern Ireland three days later, as Adam Gnezda Cerin scored.

Slovenia's four-game winning streak was snapped with a 2-1 loss at Denmark on Nov. 17.  Erik Janža had the visitors' lone goal. The team bounced back with a 2-1 home victory over Kazakhstan on Nov. 20, to close out a memorable run. Benjamin Verbic and Sesko collected goals.

Of those scorers, only Karnicnik is on the current squad that will face the USMNT on Saturday in San Antonio.

THE MANAGER

Matjaz Kek took over the coaching reins of the national squad for the second time on Nov. 27, 2018, replacing caretaker manager Igor Benedejcic. He has led the Eastern European team to a 24-12-14 record and into the 2024 European Championship, marking the second time the team has qualified for the continental competition. Kek also guided Slovenia from 2007-11.

The 62-year-old head coach forged a 20-year club career as a defender in Yugoslavia and Slovenia, performing for Maribor Spittal/Drau and GAK. He earned his lone international cap for Slovenia in 1992.

After retiring from playing in 1999, Kek entered the coaching ranks a year later with Maribor, guiding the club to a pair of league titles. He also coached his country's Under-15 and U-16 teams, Al-Ittihad (Saudi Arabia) and HNK Rijeka (Croatia).

SLOVENIA ROSTER

Like his USA coaching counterpart Gregg Berhalter, Matjaz Kek named a relatively inexperienced international side.

The Slovenians bring in 17 uncapped players on its 22-man team. Five players have totaled 40 international appearances and one goal. The team is led by 29-year-old defender Zan Karnicnik, who has worn the country's colors 24 times and has the lone goal. He plays for Celje in the Slovenian PrvaLiga, the country's top tier. Karnicnik is one of 16 players who compete domestically.

Other players with international experience include midfielders Timi Max Elsnik (10 games) and Jan Repas (three), forward Andres Vombergar (two) and defender Sven Sostaric Karic (one).

Celje (15-2-2, 47 points), which leads PrvaLiga by 10 points, has the most players on the team (four) - defenders David Zec and Karnicnik and midfielders Tamar Svetlin and Mark Zabukovnik.  Second-place Olimpija Ljubljana (11-4-4) is next with three players.

Clubs from four countries are represented - Denmark (two), and Slovakia, United Arab Emirates and the United States, with one apiece.

At least one player should be familiar to American soccer fans - 19-year-old defender Mitja Ilenic, who plays for New York City FC (MLS). He also is the youngest player on the squad.

The roster has one player over 30 - forward Matej Poplatnik, who is seeking his first international appearance at the age of 31.

One thing is certain. At least one goalkeeper will make his international debut. Kek will have his choice of Igor Vekic (25-years-old), Denis Pintol (23) and Klemen Mihelak (22).

DETAILED ROSTER BY POSITION

GOALKEEPERS (3): Klemen Mihelak (Mura; 0/0), Denis Pintol (Ljubljana;  0/0), Igor Vekic (Vejle/DEN; 0/0)

DEFENDERS (8): Zan Karnicnik (Celje; 24/1), Sven Sostaric Karic (Maribor; 1/0), Mitja Ilenic (New York City FC/USA; 0/0), Matija Kavcic (Bravo; 0/0), Srdan Kuzmic (Viborg/DEN; 0/0), Marcel Ratnik (Olimpija Ljubljana; 0/0), Zan Zaletel (Viborg/DEN; 0/0), David Zec (Celje; 0/0)

MIDFIELDERS (7): Timi Max Elsnik (Olimpija Ljubljana; 0/0), Jan Repas (Maribor; 3/0), Sandro Jovanovic (Aluminij; 0/0), Tamar Svetlin (Celje; 0/0), Luka Vesner Ticic (Koper; 0/0), Mark Zabukovnik (Celje; 0/0), Adrian Zeljkovic (Trnava/SVK; 0/0)

FORWARDS (4): Andrés Vombergar (Ittihad Kalba/UAE; 0/0), Nejc Gradisar (Rogaska; 0/0), Matej Poplatnik (Bravo; 0/0), Danijel Šturm (Domzale; 0/0)

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