Having survived the “Group of “Death,” Jürgen Klinsmann is now aiming to make the United States the last country standing at the 2014 World Cup.
Klinsmann was criticized by many for stating ahead of the competition that it was unrealistic for the U.S. to leave Brazil with the World Cup trophy. While the reaction to his largely innocuous comments was overblown, there's certainly a greater air of positivity as the team prepares for its Round of 16 match with Belgium. And rightly so.
When the draw was made for the World Cup in December, few gave the U.S. a chance of prevailing from a group that contained perennial challengers Germany, a Portugal squad featuring the world’s then best player Cristiano Ronaldo, and Ghana, the country that ended American hopes in 2006 and 2010.
Instead, a last-gasp win over Ghana provided the perfect springboard for qualification and a point against Portugal proved enough, despite a defeat to Germany. Defender Omar Gonzalez, who made his first start in the 1-0 loss to Germany, emphasized the high ambitions now permeating through the camp.
“Jürgen has been nothing but positive. He’s telling us, he’s telling our families to change our flights to July 14th, 15th, because we’re going to be here until the very end,” Gonzalez told reporters. "So that just speaks volumes to how positive he is, how much he believes in this team, and obviously it trickles down to all of us.”
The U.S. will be attempting to match its best achievement at a World Cup, other than a third-place finish in 1930 when just 13 teams competed, of a quarterfinal berth reached in 2002. That World Cup also marked the last time the Yanks' opponents reached the knockout phase or even a major international tournament.
After a 12-year drought, Belgium has lofty expectations fueled by the finest generation of talent the country has produced since the reaching the semifinals in 1986. They can count among their squad Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini and Zenit St. Petersburg’s Axel Witsel, each of whom have changed hands for more than $45 million in the past two years. The U.S. got a taste of the quality at Belgium’s disposal when the European side inflicted a comprehensive 4-2 defeat on their hosts in a friendly game in Cleveland 13 months ago.
But with high expectations comes heavy pressure. For the U.S., a victory in Salvador on Tuesday would be seen as another famous upset, a defeat for Belgium, meanwhile, would be viewed back home as a major let down. So far, the team coached by Marc Wilmots, a forward in the last Belgium team to play in the World Cup, has provided the results but not the performances. Three wins out of three in the group stage has made Belgium's progress smooth but was no more than expected in a relatively straightforward section consisting of Russia, South Korea and Algeria. The team’s displays have yet to show that they are ready to live up to being the mostly hotly tipped of the pre-tournament dark horses.
Ahead of the meeting with the U.S., Wilmots has another issue with which to contend. In their closing group game against South Korea, right-back Anthony Vanden Borre suffered an ankle injury that will rule him out of the rest of the tournament. While Borre is only a backup that wouldn’t be such a major problem if not for injuries already troubling fellow-defenders Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Ciman. Midfielder Mousa Dembele has also had to sit out training. The enormity of the match means that even those in doubt should play, even if it's not ideal.
Wilmots’ counterpart knows all about having to navigate the World Cup with a myriad of injury concerns. The U.S. has been without first-choice striker Jozy Altidore since he suffered a hamstring injury in the opening game against Ghana two weeks ago. Klinsmann has stated that he was “very optimistic” that Altidore will be ready for Belgium, although it would surely be a major gamble to play him from the start. Meanwhile, Jermaine Jones joined Clint Dempsey in suffering a broken nose during the tournament, but, as with his captain, is expected to play through the discomfort.
If they are without Altidore, the U.S. will again pack the midfield. The impressive duo of Jones and Kyle Beckerman will aim to frustrate a Belgium side that, with center-backs playing as full-backs and wide midfielders who cut inside, play very narrow. If Altidore were to start, the diamond midfield would return, with Klinsmann then faced with a conundrum over who to play on the right alongside Jones, Beckerman and Michael Bradley. Bradley came into the World Cup as the U.S. team’s best player, and while he covered more ground than any other player in the group phase, he has failed to show his ever-growing quality on the ball -- something that will be crucial to the U.S. meeting Klinsmann’s desire for more possessions.
The American’s best attacking weapon so far has arguably been right-back Fabian Johnson. The German-born Hoffenheim player could be key in exploiting space out wide, especially with Hazard, as club boss Jose Mourinho will testify, not being overly diligent at tracking back. As well as Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne should also return after being rested against South Korea. His ability to link the play will be crucial if Belgium is to find the fluidity they have so far been missing. Teenager Divock Origi could get his first start up front in place of the so-far-disappointing Romelu Lukaku.
Since impressively coming through qualifying and that strong win over the U.S. last year, several of Belgium’s Premier-League-based players have had disappointing seasons with their clubs. Some of that malaise appears to have been brought to Brazil. While winning all three games in Brazil, Belgium has only led in this World Cup for a combined 23 minutes. They have found it incredibly difficult to break teams down so far. With a midfield lacking real passing quality, Belgium has been reliant on moments of individual quality from Hazard and Dries Mertens, as well as will power, and, on occasion, the physicality of Fellaini.
The U.S. should certainly be able to match Belgium in physicality and mental strength. While there's always the possibility that Hazard, Mertens or De Bruyne could produce something special to which the U.S. will simply have no response, if Klinsmann’s men can limit that threat, then they have a great chance of extending their run.
USA 1-0 Belgium
Betting odds (bovada.lv)
In 90 minutes:
Belgium win: 21/20
USA win: 5/2
When and where: The 2014 World Cup Round of 16 match will kick off from the Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador at 4 p.m. ET. TV coverage will be provided by ESPN.