[BRAZIL 2014] The USA can learn a lot from Belgium. Like the USA, the Red Devils have never won the World Cup and only once before advanced as far as the semifinals. Indeed, they had not been to the World Cup or European Championship since 2002. But they were the deserving winners of one of the most dramatic overtimes in World Cup history. For three lessons the USA can learn from Belgium.
1. You need more than one center forward. In the weeks before the USA started World Cup training camp, the question being asked was whether Jurgen Klinsmann should drop Jozy Altidore. Now that it is out of the World Cup, the answer is clear that the USA could not do without Altidore. Ironic?
Klinsmann had no one on his bench to replace Altidore, using Aron Johannssononly in the Ghana game and Chris Wondolowski for late shifts in two games. Without Altidore -- or a suitable replacement -- Klinsmann was forced to switch how the USA played and Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley both struggled in different roles.
Belgium lost its No. 1 striker, Christian Benteke, with a torn Achilles tendon in April but had two replacements: 21-year-old Romelu Lukaku and 19-year-old Divock Origi. Lukaku is a bigger name -- Big Rom won the Belgian title with Anderlecht at the age 16 -- but Origi -- who has only been playing professionally for 18 months in France -- had had the better World Cup and got the start against the USA.
Belgium's Queen Mathilde congratulated Lukaku for scoring the winning goal against Russia, confusing him with Origi, who had scored the goal, his first ever for the Red Devils. Lukaku got his chance against the USA to score what proved to be the winning goal, but it didn't matter who scored. As a tandem, Lukaku and Origi wore down the USA backline until it could hold out no more and were two more center forwards Belgium had than the USA had when its first-choice striker went down.
Photo: Lukaku and Howard. (By isiphotos.com)
2. You need to have the athletes.As U.S football and basketball stars caught on to the World Cup and started showing their support for the national team, a lot of commentators made the connection and suggested the USA would have a better chance if soccer attracted the best athletes. A simplistic argument -- see below -- but one that has some merit if you look at Belgium. The Red Devils had the better athletes, plain and simple.
Not just on the deciding play when Lukaku tossed aside Matt Besler, the matchup of Big Rom and Besler looked like man versus child -- and that's not intended to be a knock on Besler, who was largely excellent for the USA throughout the World Cup.
All the talk in the Belgian camp in the days leading up to the match was whether central defender Vincent Kompany was healthy enough to play. We got the answer as he went the distance -- literally -- making a 100-yard run late in the dying seconds of the regulation that ended in arguably the best of Tim Howard's 16 saves.
As good as Howard was against Belgium, there is probably no Red Devil supporter who would take Howard over Belgian No. 1 Thibaut Courtois, all of 22 years old. At 6-foot-6, Courtois has the wingspan of a small plane -- and the quickness to preserve the win with a point-blank stop on Dempsey after the tricky U.S. free kick fooled the Belgian defense.
3. You need the soccer players.At the end of the day, what separated Belgium and the USA was the Red Devils' soccer. Belgium won the game in midfield with its two little men, Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens, both 5-foot-7, and Kevin de Bruyne, whose quickness was too much for the USA to handle.
Even after Lukaku broke past Besler, the USA had three defenders with a shot of stopping de Bruyne but his touch was too good, leaving him open it fired an angled shot past Howard. The probing moves of Hazard, Mertens, later replaced Kevin Mirallas, and de Bruyne, the player of the game with the pass that Lukaku put away for the second goal, were too much for the USA, who again had little concerted possession and got little out of its outside midfielders (until Julian Green's surprise entrance).
Like France, Switzerland and to a lesser extent Germany, three other European teams in the final 16 at the World Cup, Belgium has successfully integrated players into the national team program from its immigrant communities, in its case mostly from the former Belgian colonies in the Congo and from North Africa. But what they also done successfully is seek out and nurture players of skill, no matter their background.
While rise of the Red Devils coincided with a concerted effort by Belgian soccer authorities to seek out immigrant players playing in the streets, at a much more fundamental level they introduced an emphasis on technique in young players at clubs across Belgium following the embarrassment of co-hosting Euro 2000 and exiting in the group stage.
It's paid off with a "Golden Generation" that is the final eight of the World Cup for the first time since 1982