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USA-Belgium Preview: U.S. win is a must if it wants to raise its stock
by Ridge Mahoney, July 1st, 2014 7:28PM

TAGS:  belgium, men's national team, world cup 2014


By Ridge Mahoney

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.”

  1. cisco martinez
    commented on: June 30, 2014 at 7:40 p.m.
    i think Klinnsmann will play something similar to Portugal considering the play of Hazard and Lukaku. 4-3-2-1 formation likely, absorb pressure, build play from the back, try to catch Belgium on the counter, especially on Fabian Johnson's side, and work on defending and scoring on set pieces. I would again look at the defensive speed of the Belgium defenders and either start or sub Yedlin on the wings as well.
  1. I w Nowozeniuk
    commented on: July 1, 2014 at 7:05 a.m.
    Sorry Cisco, the 4-3-2-1 is not an effective formation for the USNT. When Bradley is moved up, he's not in a comfort zone. No way is Jozy playing unless its crunch time and the game is slipping...BTW, USA has a good chance to advance as long as it is patient with constructive possession and team shape. We know that mentally they are pumped, hopefully the adrenalin doesn't go overboard.
  1. Tim Gibson
    commented on: July 1, 2014 at 7:54 a.m.
    I wish Bruce would stop 2nd guessing JK & a bit more humble when discussing the National team. His arrogance is growing mold. He should simply be saying>>>>"GO USA!"
  1. charles davenport
    commented on: July 1, 2014 at 8:15 a.m.
    this "blog" would be better if users were notified of responses to comments, similar to facebook. I'd be 75% surprised if Altidore plays
  1. cisco martinez
    commented on: July 1, 2014 at 9:46 a.m.
    The US got out of the group of death, how was it not effective? We beat Ghana, nearly beat Portugal, and lost to Germany, those are good results against top teams. We now play Belgium a team we can beat if we use the 4-3-2-1 and counter.
  1. Dan Phillips
    commented on: July 1, 2014 at 11:53 a.m.
    Use a 4-4-2 with Aron Johannsson and Wondo up top.
  1. Gunther Charles
    commented on: July 1, 2014 at 12:10 p.m.
    I don't understand the "Altidore" case, this guy plays for a few minutes and goes out and not play again. My question is: Is he scared of the negative comments he received from almost every game he plays in or the constant comments from the TV Commentator like Lalas, Jozy has not scored, has not scored, has not scored or is he indeed out of shape and nobody will admit it
  1. Santiago 1314
    commented on: July 1, 2014 at 12:10 p.m.
    Only way to get "Normal " Altidore "Shape/Structure" back, is a Cameron UP FRONT.. JK mistake was not Donavan, But, omitting Eddie or Boyd... Dempsey and Bradley are suffering for that mistake by being forced "UP" one Slot... Cameron was Offensive Player before Dynamo forced him to defense.. Brooks for Besler.. Bes,can make it 120minutes .. Brooks, Gonzo, Cameron, would be unstoppable on any Fks/Corners.. Cameron can be pulled back to Midfield or Defense, if he doesn't work out up front.. The Bunker/Bus to PKs
  1. Santiago 1314
    commented on: July 1, 2014 at 2:35 p.m.
    Only way to get "Normal " Altidore "Shape/Structure" back, is a Cameron UP FRONT.. JK mistake was not Donavan, But, omitting Eddie or Boyd... Dempsey and Bradley are suffering for that mistake by being forced "UP" one Slot... Cameron was Offensive Player before Dynamo forced him to defense.. Brooks for Besler.. Bes, can't make it 120minutes .. Brooks, Gonzo, Cameron, would be unstoppable on any Fks/Corners.. Cameron can be pulled back to Midfield or Defense, if he doesn't work out up front.. Then Bunker/Bus to PKs

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