The U.S. will face Belgium at 4 p.m. today in the Sweet 16 of the World Cup.
A win will see the U.S. to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2002 and the second time in team history in the tournament’s modern format.
It may be the last World Cup game for several U.S. stars, including forward Clint Dempsey, fullback DaMarcus Beasley and goalie Tim Howard, who are in their 30s.
This will be a game of contrasts.
The U.S. has yet to play well for 90-plus minutes in its three World Cup games – a win over Ghana, tie to Portugal and loss to Germany — but is greater than the sum of its parts.
In contrast, Belgium is full of standouts in European leagues, but has yet to play up to its potential in this World Cup in wins over Algeria, Russia and South Korea.
The U.S. may get key player Jozy Altidore back from the torn hamstring he sustained in the opening minutes of the opening game against Ghana. It would be a surprise to see him on the field, considering what’s riding on the game and the fact that the three substitutions teams are allowed to use are precious when facing the possibility of playing 120 minutes. Another quick injury to Altidore could have catastrophic effects.
While is the U.S. is getting a player back, Belgium is carrying several significant injuries. Vincent Kompany, who is arguably one of the best central defenders in the world, may be out. Fellow central defender Thomas Vermaelen will be out, as will fullback Anthony Vanden Borre. Midfielder Marouane Fellaini is carrying an injury but is supposed to play.
The significance of those injuries brings us to the three keys for a U.S. victory in today’s game.
The U.S. must attack
It doesn’t matter who plays in the back for Belgium if the U.S. doesn’t test them. Because this is a win-or-go-home situation, the U.S. can’t sit back and absorb pressure as it tried to do against Germany and as it did for 80-plus minutes after taking a quick lead against Ghana. The U.S. had just 32 percent of the possession against Germany, inviting them to attack at will.
The U.S. can’t give that much respect to Belgium, a team as skilled in the midfield and at forward as any in the World Cup.
Jermaine Jones is moving to the left and Geoff Cameron is moving to the right side of the midfield for the U.S. in what appears to be a 4-4-3 formation.
Jones has shown much more inclination and skill at going forward than has Michael Bradley, who has had a mostly forgettable World Cup so far.
If Bradley drops back, he can receive the ball from the defenders and then build attacks. He plays much better from a deeper role where he can see most of the field. Plus, Jones has shown the work ethic and stamina to go 100-percent all game, which has also been a problem for Bradley, who looked dead on his feet in the final minutes against Portugal and Germany.
With Bradley or Jones on the ball, Beasley and right back Fabian Johnson will need to roam the sidelines and probe Belgium’s back line, which isn’t fast, and overload one side of the field with more U.S. attackers than Belgium a defenders, a tactic must of you know as the key to successfully running in the ball in American football. That can be hard to do in the U.S. preferred 4-1-4-1 formation, particularly when the team is constantly guarding against counter-attacks by keeping its outside fullbacks pinned back.
But it the U.S. players can relax and trust that Kyle Beckerman and the back five can break up any counter-attacks, Beasley and Johnson should be able to move up the field.
Moving Jones up the field may also help break up the rhythm of Belgium’s attacks when they do get the ball. Jones is a very good tackler who has shown an ability to walk the line between a good play and a yellow card.
When the U.S. attacks it can’t miss chances. It may get three to five good goal-scoring chances in a game. It must take advantage of at least one. The U.S. had two against Germany in the first half and flubbed both of them. It had two more in the second half and couldn’t convert.
The U.S. must guard those flanks
Teams are bombarding the U.S. with crosses. A whopping 84 have been sent into the U.S. box in three games.
It’s a tactic that the U.S., particularly Beasley, seems to invite, perhaps because coach Jurgen Klinsmann knows there are big central defenders like Cameron, Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez back there to swat them away.
But it only takes one to change the game.
So those crossing lanes must be closed down against Belgium for two reasons: Not only do they provide opportunities to score (a la Portugal), but giving up that space for crosses also means there is space for players to cut in and try 20-yard shots or drive toward the goal (a la Ghana).
Belgium’s Eden Hazard is particularly good at either of those skills.
In short, Beasley and Johnson must close down wide players when they have the ball and not give them the space or time to pick out passes or shots. It may seem like a lot, particularly when I noted that they must also get into the attack, but it’s part of their job.
No mental mistakes
The U.S. can’t shank any kicks like it did against Portugal and then against Germany. The U.S. can’t have heavy touches like it did against Portugal.
The U.S. can’t switch off its brain for a second and hope to win.
The good news for the U.S. is many of its players have participated in one-and-done games before in the MLS playoffs. So they are used to this type of mental and physical pressure, albeit on a lesser scale.
Belgium is an immensely talented side. Hazard can change games by himself. Thibaut Courtois fills up a goal. Alex Witsel is masterful in the middle of the field.
On defense, the U.S. can’t relax and assume that Belgium’s players aren’t making runs off the ball. On offense, they must force Belgium’s defenders to make decisions.
It should be an exciting game.