The United States and Belgium will duel in the Round of 16 Tuesday at Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, Brazil, for a spot in the World Cup quarterfinals.
U.S. supporters breathed a sigh of relief after the Yanks pushed through to the knockout stage despite a 1-0 loss to Germany in the final Group G match, and two previous matches when the U.S. struggled to maintain possession or create very many scoring opportunities.
Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who’s faced the ire of supporters and the media for his tactics and publicly doubting his team’s World Cup chances, has the U.S. on the cusp of their second quarterfinal appearance in history and first since 2002’s run.
The former Germany coach has since changed his tune after the U.S. survived the Group of Death.
“Belgium is one of the secret favorites in the World Cup because of the players they have,” Klinsmann said. “We have absolutely no fear at all. We’re in position to challenge them. We have the foundation to beat them. Can we do it? Yes, we can."
Fielding such top flight attackers like Manchester City’s Eden Hazard and Everton’s Romelu Lukaku, Belgium has also made its deepest run since 2002 in South Korea after failing to qualify for the last two tournaments.
Belgium finished first in Group H by claiming three victories, one of only four teams to do so, but they suffered another significant blow to the backline during training Friday. Right back Anthony Vanden Borre twisted his ankle and is likely to miss the rest of the tournament, further plaguing a Belgium defense that’s already dealt with knocks to captain Vincent Kompany, second-in-command defender Thomas Vermaelen and 28-year-old Laurent Ciman.
The 26-year-old Vanden Borre is not a regular starter for Belgium, but the loss does expose a defense that surrendered only one goal in the group stage. Belgium has been plagued by slow starts in every match so far, and falling behind early or a lack of depth could be enough to end their World Cup run.
With Belgium’s health declining as the tournament presses on, the U.S. can take solace in the improving status of striker Jozy Altidore’s hamstring. The powerful 24-year-old who’s second on the team with 23 international goals hasn’t played since suffering the injury early in the 2-1 upset over Ghana in the Cup opener, but he’s been training this week and Klinsmann said Friday he’s hopeful Altidore can return against Belgium.
The Americans are likely more concerned with how poor their midfield play has been. Michael Bradley has struggled to maintain any sort of possession or even aid the attack in any meaningful way, especially against bigger more athletic wingers.
German-American national Jermaine Jones has picked where Bradley has left off, punishing opposing backlines with his strength and netting the only goal for the U.S. midfield. He’s also shown incredible accuracy with all four of his shots on target.
Jones did suffer a broken nose in the loss to Germany after a collision with teammate and fellow midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, but he’s still expected to play and take advantage of a Belgium midfield that will miss the services of Steven Defour following a one-game suspension for a red card issued against South Korea.
Belgium midfielders Axel Witsel and Mousa Dembele will also enter the match with yellow cards and will be mindful of another booking so as to avoid a suspension in the next round.
Start Time: Tuesday, 4 p.m.
TV Channel: ESPN
Live Online Stream: A live online stream is available at Watch ESPN here
Betting Odds: (bovada.lv)
Over/Under: 2.5 goals
Prediction: USA over Belgium, 1-0