By Paul Kennedy
It would be easy to say that one team came to play and the other did not, but the USA's 4-2 loss to Belgium Wednesday night at Cleveland's FirstEnergy Stadium once again exposed all that is worrying about the U.S. national team on the eve of its busiest stretch of the year.
The Red Devils scored with astonishing ease, punishing simple errors and lackadaisical play by the home team. The USA has played quite a few stinkers in the last two years, but this could have been the worst.
It was surely the worst defensive performance of the Jurgen Klinsmann era, and the scoreline would have been worse but for Clint Dempsey's late penalty kick on a dubious handball call, a worse call than on the handball not called on DaMarcus Beasley in the first half.
Beasley was celebrating his 100th cap with family and friends from Ft. Wayne in neighboring Indiana on hand for the occasion, and he was one of the few players to play with any commitment even if he was overmatched physically by the talented Belgian frontline.
SIMPLE ERRORS PUNISHED. The USA recorded back-to-back shutouts in its previous two matches -- both World Cup qualifiers -- but was lucky to get out of Cleveland having conceded only four goals against a team that didn't exactly come out with high energy.
Omar Gonzalez is considered the only sure thing on the backline these days, but he had a nightmare in Cleveland.
Geoff Cameron and Gonzalez were late to cover and Clarence Goodson was caught ball-watching on the rebound of Romelu Lukaku's shot stopped by Tim Howard, and Howard's Everton teammate, Kevin Mirallas, made the USA pay with a delicate chip into the goal for the Belgian lead in the 6th minute, shades of the early goals the USA conceded during the 2010 World Cup.
A 1-1 score at the half was a fair scoreline, but it all fell part for the USA in a 16-minute period in the second half.
Gonzalez was again at fault on the go-ahead goal in the 56th minute, his sloppy touch allowing Kevin de Bruyne to feed Christian Benteke for an easy goal.
Moments after entering the game, young forward Terrence Boyd failed get to a ball cleared from the U.S. box, allowing de Bruyne put it in back to the far post, where Marouane Fellaini beat Graham Zusi for an easy goal.
By now, the USA had been put on notice of the Red Devils' clinical finishing, but a collective brain-freeze allowed Steven Defour plenty of time to feed Benteke, who beat his Aston Villa teammate, Brad Guzan, who had entered after halftime, for the second time.
For those looking for some positives from Matt Besler after his introduction in place of the outmatched Goodson, the Sporting Kansas City defender, who played so well at Azteca Stadium last month against Mexico, was burned badly by Benteke and lucky not have conceded a penalty.
WHERE'S THE OFFENSE? The USA's defensive deficiencies will overshadow what was again a forgettable evening for the U.S. attack.
The USA generated all of three shots in Wednesday's game and two shots on goal (both goals). In the last three matches, it has recorded just 10 shots and three shots on goal (all goals).
Klinsmann started Jozy Altidore and Dempsey up front, but it's unlikely he'll go with Altidore, Dempsey and Herculez Gomez -- the trio that started the two March qualifiers -- any time soon.
In midfield, Sacha Kljestan got his first start of the Klinsmann era but he simply doesn't have the dynamism of Michael Bradley to spark the counterattacks the USA so relies on. Brad Davis, guilty of coughing up the ball on the play that led to the second Belgium goal, whipped in a few good crosses but won't put fear into opponents with his treks down the wing.
It's the same on the right side of the backline, where Cameron looks terribly out of place. Despite his tying goal in the first half, he adds nothing to the U.S. attack in the run of play.
If Klinsmann was looking for some answers on Wednesday night in Cleveland, he got none of them.
BELGIUM IS SCARILY DEEP. The Red Devils are the real thing. They showed why they are the third most expensive team in the world in terms of transfer values.
And this isn't even the complete first team. Fellaini, Lukaku and Mirallas aren't even starters on a team that was missing Thibaut Courtois (considered the best young keeper in the world) in goal and Eden Hazard and Axel Witsel in midfield, and began the game with Benteke on the bench.