The annual January camp is an opportunity for the United States Men’s National Team to bring new players into the fold and provide a bridge ahead of meaningful competition. There are quite a few current contributors who made their debut with the program during this introductory period. This year’s training concludes with a friendly against Slovenia, an opponent best remembered for a thrilling battle at the 2010 World Cup. The match is scheduled for Toyota Field in San Antonio, Texas, an 8,296-seat venue with a Latitude 36 Bermudagrass surface.
This is the third all-time meeting between the two nations, with the USMNT holding a 1-0-1 advantage and winning the most-recent fixture in 2011. Currently ranked 54th internationally by FIFA, Slovenia qualified for next summer’s 2024 UEFA European Football Championship by finishing at second place in Group H with a 7-2-1 record, tied on 22 points with Denmark but on the wrong side of the head-to-head results. The program will return to the continental competition for the first time since 2000, while the ongoing World Cup drought dates back to 2010.
Slovenia is helmed by Matjaž Kek, who was appointed in November of 2018 for his second stint in the manager role. The 62-year-old retired defender has experience leading domestic side Maribor, Al-Ittihad, and Rijeka in Croatia. He is a “frequent guest” in Croatian media and regularly bats away speculation of taking over Dinamo Zagreb. Noting the team’s status as a relative underdog, his plan is to play at least five friendlies in preparation for next summer.
Kek initially named a 22-player roster for the friendly, a group that features only five members with previous senior international experience. Sandro Jovanović departed camp “due to an illness.” With this “prelude to the spring,” the intent is to observe the call-ups and determine whether “they can also help in case of problems” during a busy 2024. The domestic PrvaLiga is home to 16 talents, while the other six are on the books at clubs in Denmark, the United States, Slovakia, and the United Arab Emirates.
GOALKEEPERS (3): Igor Vekić (Vejle), Denis Pintol (Olimpija Ljubljana), Klemen Mihelak (Mura)
DEFENDERS (8): Žan Karničnik (Celje), Sven Šoštarič Karič (Maribor), Matija Kavčič (Bravo), Žan Zaletel (Viborg), David Zec (Celje), Marcel Ratnik (Olimpija Ljubljana), Srđan Kuzmić (Viborg), Mitja Ilenič (New York City FC)
MIDFIELDERS (6): Timi Max Elšnik (Olimpija Ljubljana), Jan Repas (Maribor), Luka Vešner Tičić (Koper), Mark Zabukovnik (Celje), Tamar Svetlin (Celje), Adrian Zeljković (Spartak Trnava)
FORWARDS (4): Andrés Vombergar (Ittihad Kalba), Matej Poplatnik (Bravo), Danijel Šturm (Domžale), Nejc Gradišar (Rogaška)
Kek typically deploys a 4-4-2 formation, noting that Slovenia “doesn’t change systems” like other teams, instead opting to make smaller adjustments. The manager “always emphasizes the collective,” utilizing a “proven formula of pragmatism” that seeks to slow down proceedings with “fighter football.” The team scores a significant number of goals from set pieces but will often settle for shots from outside of the box during the run of play, preferring to maintain an ordered and disciplined structure instead of chasing the game.
Klemen Mihelak is considered perhaps the top young goalkeeper in the domestic league, racking up 18 appearances this season and attracting interest from “several foreign clubs.” Despite surrendering 27 goals for Nogometna šola Mura, the 22-year-old was often “let down by his teammates” and still managed to register to five shutouts. He is long and agile, using his intriguing combination of size and speed to make a variety of impressive stops from short and long range. While brave, his forays forward to meet crosses or challenge breakaways can be a tad unclean and lead to awkward ricochets that force his teammates into emergency clean-up duty.
Olimpija Ljubljana centre-back Marcel Ratnik was named to the PrvaLiga Team of the Season for 2022-23, is a regular with the U-21 national team, and reigns as the league’s top-scoring defender this season, which has put him on the wish list for quite a few sporting directors. He specializes at swarming passing lanes with a keen sense of anticipation, has a decent spring to claim headers, and projects equanimity in possession with measured distribution. While yet to make his debut, David Zec earned his first senior call-up in October, a long journey after garnering national interest from his early-career move to Benfica. The 24-year-old now with Nogometni klub Celje provides an effective combination of size and speed while also serving as a dangerous target into the box on set pieces.
Mojstrovina Marcela Ratnika! pic.twitter.com/2l4jMhETnU— NK Olimpija Ljubljana (@nkolimpija) August 13, 2023
One of two regular members of the squad, Žan Karničnik has played in every senior international fixture dating back to October of 2021 and started all of the Euro qualifiers, racking up a one-goal, two-assist performance in a 4-0 victory over San Marino. The 29-year-old NK Celje defender won the domestic league’s Player of the Month award for October and is a strong two-way player with the ability to operate as a creator in the final third. Teenaged New York City FC fullback Mitja Ilenič is praised for having “very good pace, agility, and coordination.” He boasts “good timing, positioning, and game reading” along with being an “aggressive and tenacious tackler.”
The other regular in the squad, Timi Max Elšnik appeared in eight out of ten European qualifiers, providing a high defensive work rate and progression into the final third. The Olimpija Ljubljana midfielder and two-time PrvaLiga Player of the Year “works like a machine, has a powerful left-footed shot, runs a lot, and goes into every match with determination.” After earning three caps in 2017, NK Maribor dynamo Jan Repas makes his return to the international level, carrying six goals and three assists this season and December’s domestic player of the month. He is agile and creative with the ability to place passes over the top and craft accurate finishes from distance. There’s also imposing six Adrian Zeljković, who is receiving interest from Serie A sides due to his impressive physicality and elusiveness when working out of pressure. The 21-year-old with Spartak Trnava in the Slovak First Football League can drop deeper into a quasi-centre-back position, which allows him to use his lateral movement to close down opposing dribblers.
Hat-trick Danijela Šturma na tekmi v Kidričevem pic.twitter.com/WSiBdpss4V— NK Domžale (@NKDomzale) December 8, 2023
Pacey winger Danijel Šturm has six goals and five assists for Nogometni klub Domžale. He presses the opposing back line and is a fairly accurate passer but thrives when receiving the opportunity to break into space. On the other side of the formation is Matej Poplatnik of Nogometni klub Bravo, who racked up seven finishes in the fall after feasting with 24 goals in 24 appearances in the second-tier Druga Liga last season. The 31-year-old has “a nose for scoring goals” and works the angles by taking intelligent touches to open up space.
Born in Argentina, Andrés Vombergar made his senior international debut in November of 2022 and started in a EURO qualifier against San Marino. The Ittihad Kalba (UAE) striker has the size and athleticism to claim headers in the box and speed to chase down balls behind the back line. He also puts in work to regain possession by pressing opposing centre-backs. In-form Nejc Gradišar ended the first half of the PrvaLiga with five goals in five matches, giving him eight total for Nogometni klub Rogaška. The 21-year-old has a delicate touch to collect passes in traffic and possesses a true poacher’s instinct when lurking around the goalmouth.
Occurring outside of the international window, the annual January friendly is always a bit of a toss-up with regards to quality and overall cohesion. Both sides typically bring a developmental roster, looking to incorporate new talents into their respective programs with an eye on the future. There will likely be some misfiring in the attacking third, a few defensive mistakes, and few, if any, goals.
The match is scheduled for Saturday, January 20th at 3:00 p.m. Eastern, 12:00 p.m. Pacific. Viewing options include TNT, Telemundo, Universo, Max, Peacock, and FUBO TV (free trial).