If you’ve been watching the World Cup, you’re probably starting to become familiar with the ever-apparent and wonderfully dramatic overarching themes of this years competition in Brazil. It’s been a World Cup where anything can happen, especially if you’re a CONCACAF team.
The much maligned region, made up of the Caribbean, North America, and Central America, had never gotten more than 2 teams into the knockout stages at a World Cup. But in this year’s “Cup of CONCACAF” as I am trying to get people to start calling it, a record three teams advanced to the final 16. Mexico will feel disappointed that they are heading home in the Round of 16, for the sixth straight tournament, after conceding two late goals to the Dutch on Sunday. Meanwhile Los Ticos of Costa Rica will carry the CONCACAF banner into the quarterfinals after narrowly defeating Greece on penalties.
On Tuesday the United States will have the opportunity to join Costa Rica in the quarterfinals if they can defeat their own European opponents from Belgium. The Red Devils are surely the favorites for the clash in Salvador, as they took all nine points to top Group H. The USMNT backed into the Round of 16 but also had a substantially harder group to overcome.
Belgium didn’t win any of their group stage games by a margin greater than one. They struggled to beat teams from Algeria, Russia, and South Korea who can all be considered worse than the Portuguese and Ghanaian teams whom the US qualified in lieu of. A popular point of criticism for the Belgians is that they play like 11 individuals, as opposed to a team of one.
Belgium do have a variety of talented players who are capable of producing a moment of individual brilliance to win a match. Eden Hazard of Chelsea will be the main focus of the American defense. Hazard scored 16 goals last year for Chelsea and was consistently the most dangerous man in Jose Mourinho’s outfit over the course of the season. He’s already used his dribbling and incredible vision to set up two goals for the Belgians in the group stage. The Americans will also need to defend well against the speed and skill of Napoli winger Dries Mertens, who has been one of Belgium’s most dangerous players in this World Cup.
Jozy Altidore’s status is still up in the air for Tuesday’s game as he attempts to recover from a hamstring injury suffered two weeks ago against Ghana. The United States have really missed Altidore’s strength in hold-up play that allows them to keep possession after playing balls into their striker. Against Germany the Americans struggled to get a touch on the ball for the first 15 minutes due to physical play from the German defenders that a big forward like Altidore could have overcome.
The American attack could receive an incredible boost if Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany is unable to go at center-back for the Belgians. Kompany is Belgium’s captain and is widely considered to be one of the best defenders in the world. The Manchester City man is struggling with a groin injury while his partner-in-defense Thomas Vermaelen has a hamstring issue. Both defenders are reported to be doubtful for Tuesday’s match, but there is a chance that this is just a smokescreen from Marc Wilmots and the Belgian camp designed to throw off the American preparation for the match.
Even if Kompany and Vermaelen miss out the United States will still face a difficult task to beat this Belgian side, but there are reasons to be optimistic. The Belgian injuries and possible return of Altidore could play into the their favor, but the matchup against Belgium is a better one for the US than you think.
The United States’ attack often includes fullbacks who have come forward to make runs down the wing in support. DeMarcus Beasley and Fabian Johnson are thus tasked with running up and down their sideline all game long. When things don’t work out or the ball is turned over they can be caught by a counter-attack down the wings. That’s exactly what happened when Cristiano Ronaldo served up a beautiful cross for Silvestre Varela that enabled Portugal to steal a point off the Americans in Manaus. The Belgians tend to focus their attack in the center of the pitch because of the limitations of their lineup. The American’s defensive strength is in the middle of the field where holding midfielders Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman have been excellent defensively so far.
It seems nobody in Belgium plays fullback so they start two center-backs on the outside. Jan Vertonghen of Tottenham and Toby Alderweireld of Atletico Madrid play centrally for their clubs, but on international duty they tend to cede the center-back spots to Kompany and Vermaelen. Vertonghen is more comfortable at left-back than Alderweireld is at right-back, but neither of them push forward as far as a traditional fullback would. This gives an advantage to the Americans who will welcome the Belgians coming straight at them instead of around them like teams who’d victimized the US in the group stage.
The Belgians will choose between Romelu Lukaku and 19-year-old Divock Origi to be their main striker against the USMNT. Lukaku struggled in his first two starts for the Belgians and was replaced by Origi in both before sitting the entire match with South Korea. Lukaku is coming off a successful season on loan at Everton where he bagged 15 goals and led the Toffees to an impressive 5th-place-finish in the Premier League. While Lukaku’s future at his parent club Chelsea is undetermined, Lille’s Origi is being linked to seemingly every club in Europe after his late winner beat Russia in the group stage.
If the US has proved anything so far at this World Cup they’ve proved their ability to keep games close. They triumphed over a Ghanaian onslaught in their first game and importantly kept the Germans to a single goal in their third game. This one should be another nail biter. In the spirit of this historically dramatic World Cup; expect the match to be hanging in the balance in the final minutes.
One more key for the Americans to emerge victorious in those vital moments of the match will be the play of Michael Bradley. Bradley has been all over the field for the USA, but that hasn’t necessarily been a good thing. He’s given the ball away at crucial moments and hasn’t produced the perfect passes that the Americans relied on in World Cup Qualifying. Bradley will battle with a physically strong Belgian midfield that includes Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini and Tottenham’s Mousa Dembele.
“‘There’s no feeling of satisfaction at the moment,” said Bradley, “Every guy has to look at himself and physically find more to give, mentally be that much sharper.”
If the Americans want a possible quarterfinal date with Argentina and the magical Lionel Messi, they’ll need their bald box-to-box midfielder to shine under the Brazilian sun. My prediction for the game is that it will be a close one, and my heart is telling me that the Americans will pull it out with a 2-1 victory. If my heart is wrong it will have been an amazing run in which we overcame the Group of Death, but I may never be able to enjoy waffles or Stella ever again.