The United States and Belgium will meet Tuesday in the 2014 World Cup’s round-of-16, when the Americans will try to equal their deepest run in modern history (apologies to the 1930 U.S. Men’s National Team, which finished second but competed with just 13 teams).
On paper and the pitch, the Americans are an underdog against Belgium, which boasts a lineup full of talent that plays in top European leagues and was anointed as a pre-tournament dark horse months before this Cup began. Belgium will have (at least) the two best players on the field in winger Eden Hazard and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, and they will come in with the confidence of knocking off the U.S. twice in friendlies since the last World Cup.
But there’s a sense that this American team has some momentum — and maybe something even stronger — on their side too. After all, the U.S. advanced even after losing striker Jozy Altidore to injury just 20 minutes into the first match, even after Michael Bradley wasn’t his best for three consecutive matches, even after letting the Portugal match slip away and losing to Germany. The Americans got an important goal from substitute John Anthony Brooks and an important contribution on another goal from DeAndre Yedlin, two guys few analysts thought would make this trip; they got a star-quality strike from Jermaine Jones, who hadn’t scored for his country in two years.
Combine that with the possible return of Altidore to today’s lineup and potential absences of some of Belgium’s top defenders, and there is certainly a feeling of confidence around this team that wasn’t necessarily there heading into this match in 2010, and there’s a feeling along with it that maybe this team is just going to do whatever it needs to do to win another match and equal the squad’s best World Cup result in the modern era.
Here are a few players, factors, and match-ups to watch if the Americans are going to have a chance:
Fabian Johnson: Johnson has been among the Americans’ best players so far, playing solid defense at right back and making long, attacking runs up the right side to contribute to the offense. Johnson has a chance to exploit the fact that Belgium doesn’t play any traditional outside defenders, but he’ll have to be careful: Belgium’s best attacker, the aforementioned Hazard, plays largely on Johnson’s side too, so the German-American’s forward runs could leave a shaky back line exposed to Hazard’s aggressiveness. Johnson has been great since the U.S. began its tune-up matches. If the U.S. is going to win today, he’ll need to be even better on both sides of the ball.
Jozy Altidore: Altidore has missed two and a half games so far, and his fitness is one of the biggest factors coming into this match. Can Altidore start and play a full game? Is he healthy enough to come off the bench if the U.S. needs a late goal? If he is, will he be the Jozy Altidore that put two goals home against Nigeria in the final tun-up match and gave the American attack a cutting edge throughout the qualifying campaign, but didn’t score once in the six months in between? And if he doesn’t play, can the U.S. figure out a way to bolster their attack to help Clint Dempsey up front? As always when it comes to Altidore, there are nothing but questions.
Michael Bradley: It seems a given to say that Bradley, the USMNT’s stalwart midfielder, needs to be better than he has been if the U.S. is going to advance, but Bradley hasn’t been nearly as bad as he’s been painted. No player in the entire World Cup has covered more ground so far than Bradley, and he was maybe a quarter-inch from a goal against Portugal that would have made everyone feel differently. Bradley has done a little bit of everything so far, and on his Soccer Morning podcast this morning, Jason Davis posited that perhaps Bradley’s problem is that he’s been asked to do too much. Bradley is at his best when he’s sitting back as a rock in the midfield, distributing the ball forward and making the occasional attacking run. As good as Jermaine Jones has been moving forward from the midfield, Bradley may be able to return to more of that role, though there has been little indication of that thus far. For all of the concern, he is still the best player on this roster, and the U.S. will need him to be exactly that if they want to be playing another match on Saturday.
How will the U.S. attack? The Americans found success sitting back against Ghana and relying on a late set piece goal, something they had to do when Altidore went down. They found success attacking Portugal and staying on their front foot through most of the match. They didn’t find much forward success at all against Germany. With most of the pressure shifted to Belgium, will the Americans take advantage of that by attacking them as they did Portugal? Or will they sit back and hope to score on counterattacks and set pieces? Both carry advantages and risks, and which approach they choose will depend largely on if Altidore can go and who manager Jurgen Klinsmann decides to put around Clint Dempsey if he can’t.
Who starts in defense? Coming into the World Cup, the biggest question facing this American team was the back line, and specifically, the two center backs. Matt Besler has been sufficient in his role in one of them even while battling injury, but Geoff Cameron, who started opposite Besler in the first two matches, made crucial mistakes on both of Portugal’s goals. Omar Gonzalez, who started next to Besler throughout qualifying but is an inconsistent center back himself, replaced Cameron against Germany and was (surprisingly) solid. Cameron is the better of the two players on paper — he starts, albeit at right back, in the English Premier League — but Gonzalez is the hot hand. Given Johnson’s propensity to go forward and the relative weakness of Damarcus Beasley’s defensive left side, Besler and his partner will have to be good to keep Belgium from peppering goalkeeper Tim Howard.
Luckily, the Belgians are facing their own questions on the back line, with Thomas Vermaelen out due to injury and captain Vincent Kompany possibly out — or at least hobbled — with an injury of his own. Plus, Belgium starts traditional center backs at all four defensive positions, meaning Johnson, Jones, and whoever else starts in the midfield could exploit the Red Devils’ defense. In other words, this one could have plenty of goals, or at least no shortage of chances.