After escaping the “Group of Death,” things don’t get much easier for the U.S. in the Round of 16 with a match against Belgium on Tuesday in Salvador.
Prior to the start of World Cup 2014, there was ample talk about Belgium being a dark horse to win the title, or at the very least to make a strong tournament run. The Belgians boast a number of elite players, who include Chelsea trio Thibault Courtois, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku along with a host of other world-class stars.
Though Belgium reached the semifinals in 1986, this is easily the nation’s most impressive collection of talent. There is no part of their roster that has a glaring weak spot. Courtois is one of the best goalies in the world, and will have a versatile defense unit in front of him that includes center backs Vincent Kompany (Manchester City) and Daniel Van Buyten (Bayern Munich). Full backs Toby Alderweireld (Atletico Madrid), Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal) and Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham) are capable of play a central role or leading an attack along the flanks.
However, there is legitimate criticism for the overall squad. Marc Wilmots’s side at times fails to play with much cohesion, and didn’t display the appearance of a serious World Cup contender in the group stage. Against weak opponents, Belgium won all three matches, but only combined to outscore Algeria, Russia and South Korea, 4-1.
History isn’t exactly on Belgium’s side, either. Not only did Belgium not qualify for the past two World Cups, but they have not reached the quarters since 1986. Their European Championship track record is even worse, with one appearance since 1984.
In short, Belgium tends to underachieve. But this group is so loaded with quality players that this is as good a time as any for the Red Devils to shine. The talent is clearly there, and despite some rather uninspiring play, Belgium could easily hit their stride in the knockout rounds.
Here’s what the U.S. needs to do beat Belgium:
Penetrate along the flanks
Though Kompany is considered doubtful for the match, Belgium is loaded in central defense. But the fullbacks at times seem uncomfortable with their roles, and could be prone to errors. This could open up great opportunities for wings Alejandro Bedoya and Graham Zusi, who has had a strong tournament. Zusi can make life very difficult for Alderweireld, who is expected to start at right back. Should the wings have room to work, expect the U.S. forwards to get poaching chances. Clint Dempsey is very good in such situations, and assuming Jozy Altidore receives some playing time, he could be a major asset off a cross.
Jump on the counterattacks
Belgium will be pushing hard with players like Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne. Should the U.S. stave off the attacks, holding midfielder Kyle Beckerman and center back Matt Besler could spark a quick counter and catch the Belgians on their heels. The Yanks often appear fitter than their opponents, and could use a speedy attack against Belgium. How effectively the U.S. pounce on Belgian turnovers might be the difference in the match.
Don’t look for the perfect goal
At times, the best way to generate offense is simply by maintaining pressure and forcing your opponent to deal with loose balls in the box. That might be a great attacking strategy for the U.S. against an organized and experienced defense like Belgium. Should the U.S. take lots of shots and resist the temptation to break Belgium’s offside trap, there’s a good chance Courtois can be beaten by a deflection or a poor clearance.
A major issue for the U.S. has been turnovers. While Michael Bradley entered the tournament as Team USA’s best player, he has struggled to keep possession and execute the key passes. Bradley’s heart and determination are undeniable, so he is probably more aware than anyone that he needs to rebound from a lackluster group stage. Expect the U.S. to have more cohesion between Bradley and Jermaine Jones, and for the midfield to be more focused.
Right back Fabian Johnson inherited the most important position for the U.S. with the retirement of stalwart Steve Cherundolo. Johnson has had to deal with Ghana and Germany’s exceptional left side, and also the unenviable task of containing Cristiano Ronaldo. Against Belgium, he will have to slow down Hazard, who is due for a big game after some poor efforts in the group stage. Hazard is a hard-working attacking midfielder with exceptional dribbling moves. Johnson can’t let Hazard find space to create for Lukaku, Divock Origi, or any other forward.
Catalyst off the bench
Against Ghana, the U.S. was saved by a John Brooks header. The Yanks may need another surprise performance to beat Belgium, and there are multiple players who can provide that spark. A player who might offer Klinsmann a boost is Julian Green. The 19-year-old has limited experience, but his lack of playing time could be a major asset. Green, who practices with the world’s best players at Bayern Munich, is a clever dribbler who Belgium may underestimate. A late substitution of Green could throw off the Belgian defense.
Belgium Player to Watch: Hazard. Can he create for his teammates and expose flaws in the U.S. defense? After a subpar group stage, the pressure is on Hazard to perform in Belgium's most important match in several years.
U.S. Player to Watch: Bradley. He will need to play an almost flawless match to silence critics who point to his mistake in the dying moments of the Portugal match as a turning point for the Yanks. Bradley is capable of stepping up with a big performance, and preventing Belgium from gaining their rhythm.