Teams that wish to go deep in the World Cup need to gain strength as they progress, and fate may be about to assist the USA in that regard as it opens the knockout stage against Belgium on Tuesday.
The probable return of forward Jozy Altidore, who departed the opener against Ghana with a strained hamstring midway through the first half and hasn’t played since, could boost a U.S. attack that hasn’t looked all that sharp despite scoring four goals. Aron Johannsson and Chris Wondolowski have not been factors, which has left the team dependent -- aside from Jermaine Jones’ spectacular equalizer against Portugal -- on Clint Dempsey and set plays to score goals.
In the three group games, the Americans took half as many shots (54-27) as their opponents and they trailed in the curious FIFA stat of “deliveries in the penalty area" (34-10). Their foes controlled the ball an average of 58 percent of the time. Altidore’s return can help boost the attack and give the Americans a greater threat when it does have the ball, but so far in the World Cup they haven’t been sharp in the final third.
“It’s obviously going to be a tough game for the U.S., and the U.S. issue is: How are they going to get a goal?” says former USA head coach Bruce Arena, who guided the team through the 2002 and 2006 competitions. “They haven’t had a whole lot of the ball in the tournament and they haven’t had a whole lot of chances. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s one of these games that goes into extra time and even penalty kicks.”
Both the USA and Belgium have scored four goals. Belgium has displayed a strong closing kick: each of its goals in victories over Algeria (2-1), Russia (1-0), and South Korea (1-0) were scored no earlier than the 70th minute. Forward Romelu Lukaku and winger Eden Hazard have not been at their best and coach Marc Wilmots, one of his country’s all-time greats as a player, has been getting production from Marouane Fellaini and Dries Mertens.
Though Hazard, 23, has been credited with two assists while playing in all three games, he’s seldom singed opponents on the flanks as he does for Chelsea and did for his country during the qualifiers.
"I haven't had a good match with good moves that could be decisive for our team,” said Hazard. “So I hope I can do that and have a good match. I would really like it if I can get around the field more and see more of the ball -- and make a difference, basically."
When on his game, Hazard can sear opponents on the flanks as does Arjen Robben, though he’s yet to ascend to the same heights as has the Dutch star. Belgium seldom dazzled offensively as it won all three of its group matches, and some of that is probably due to Hazard’s rather lackluster play. Still, the Red Devils’ standout characteristic is their defense; the only goal conceded by keeper Thibaut Courtois came from the penalty spot.
“It doesn’t seem that Belgium’s played particularly well but how many teams are 3-0 in their group?” asked Arena. (The other three are Argentina, Colombia and the Netherlands.) “They’re very good defensively, and they’ve got some talented attacking players, they just haven’t been able to piece it together yet, so who knows what they’re going to look like on Tuesday.”
Left unsaid is the plain fact that Belgium is just the type of team the Americans must beat to not only join an elite eight in the quarterfinals but raise their stock around the world. The 2002 round-of-16 win was historic, but it came against a regional rival the USA regularly defeats: Mexico.
The USA hasn’t beaten a European team in eight games at the World Cup since it opened the 2002 tournament by beating Portugal, 3-2. It took a 3-1 smacking from already eliminated Poland in the group finale and lost to Germany in the 2002 quarterfinals. Since then, it lost to the Czech Republic and tied Italy in 2006, tied England and Slovenia in 2010 and tied Portugal and lost to Germany in 2014, all in the group stage.
World Cup history is rife with examples of teams that didn’t impress during the group stage yet kept plowing through the knockout rounds nonetheless. Italy won the 1982 tournament after tying all three of its group games and while Belgium isn’t one of the tournament favorites it teems with experienced players. The nations are only two spots apart in the FIFA rankings -- Belgium is 11th, the USA is 13th -- yet the perceived gap is much wider.
“They know how to survive in group play and then they get better as the tournament goes on,” says Arena. “Experienced teams do that and I’m not sure if Belgium’s necessarily in that category, and whether the U.S. is or not remains to be seen. They’re going to be hard to play against, no question about it.”