The US national team has a chance to reach its first World Cup quarterfinal since 2002 on Tuesday afternoon in Salvador in a round of 16 clash versus Belgium.
Belgium went to Brazil as a dark horse to win the entire tournament, but under-performed in the group stage despite winning all three matches. Les Diables Rouges usual offensive weapons like Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard have been quiet, having failed to register a single goal. The onus to put the ball into the back of the net has instead fallen upon the shoulders of Belgium’s capable midfielders.
The trouble is Belgium’s midfielders spend most of their time creating chances, not putting them away. So by the time they adjust to their forwards being tightly marked, huge chunks of the game have passed.
That should suit the US fine. Not only is the US in form and able to battle with the Belgians in midfield, but they’re also familiar with Belgium’s tactics. Jurgen Klinsmann has lost in two tries to the Belgians, both friendlies, during his three-year tenure as coach of the Yanks (that’s a significant amount of losses to one team considering he’s only lost 13 games). But the purpose of arranging those friendlies was two-fold: one, to prepare his players for competition against one of the world’s best teams and two, to scout out the Belgians on the off-chance they’d be in the US’ path at the World Cup.
Thanks to the US taking second place in Group G, Klinsmann gets to see if the third time is the charm against Belgium.
The US have competed well in all of their matches, exceeding expectations by getting out of the group. That doesn’t meant they’ve been in control of games throughout this tournament. Against Ghana, it was the US defense that bailed the rest of the team out; ditto for their 1-0 loss to Germany. Their game against Portugal showcased the capabilities of the US’ talented, two-way midfield. But the US have yet to have a thorough, complete performance from players in every part of the field.
As the tournament continues and the pool of teams thins to the world’s best, the difficulty and need for discipline heightens. The US won’t get away with playing the way they did in any of their group games in the knockout phase—even against a Belgian team that’s not playing it’s best.
Jozy Altidore (hamstring) could make a return to the starting lineup after missing two games. He and Dempsey will be the US’ best chance at scoring goals. But they will need to rely heavily on a midfield that has to both play well in transitions and create opportunities in front of the net. Meanwhile, the lapse-prone US defense will need to stay perfect for the entirety of the match rather than allow late goals like in the games versus Ghana and Portugal.
Belgium’s Group H competitors—Russia, Algeria, and Korea Republic—showed that it’s possible to mark and track the movements of Lukaku and Hazard. But none of those three teams showed the same aptitude with covering Marouane Fellaini and Kevin de Bruyne.
Fellaini is a danger in the air—he’s 6’4” and likes to hover in the thick of the penalty area—and he’s an adept midfield general, drifting from the center of the pitch out wide, then into the box, to orchestrate passes and create chances. De Bruyne is less subtle, shooting on sight and making surging runs up the spine of opposing midfields.
The US’ hopes for advancing to the quarterfinals may hinge on limiting their defensive lapses and marking Fellaini and De Bruyne. But even if the US do fail to move on in what appears to be a winnable fixture, they will have done better than most predicted before the tournament started.