World Cup

World Cup preview: USA vs Belgium

Well, the easy part is over.

The United States proved a worthy second place finisher in a difficult group. Now they face off against an extremely talented Belgium side that loped through a soft Group H without getting out of first gear.

Who are these Belgians?

They are a new power — or hope to be — in world football. This is, quite simply, a team loaded with young talent at every position but two (more on that later). Captain Vincent Kompany was the first of this generation to appear on the world stage, becoming the anchor of Manchester City’s back line after a 2008 transfer from Hamburg.

Since Kompany’s emergence, a string of Belgians have made their mark on club soccer.Thomas Vermaelen has been a good player when healthy at Arsenal, Jan Vertonghen has proven himself a capable center back (and a so-so left back) at Tottenham, Axel Witsel has developed into an intelligent holding midfielder in the center, while Marouane Fellaini and Mousa Dembele have proven as skilled as they are mercurial and divisive. Kevin De Bruyne briefly joined Chelsea before leaving to light up the Bundesliga with Wolfsburg (he’s extremely good). Romelu Lukaku has been similarly shunned by Jose Mourinho and Chelsea, with his proven goalscoring record in the EPL failing to translate to Brazil thus far. Nacer Chadli has been the rare bust at Tottenham (and in the Cup), and 19-year old Adnan Januzaj is available off the bench after a strong season at Manchester United.

Dries Mertens was hardly known outside of Naples before he burst onto the scene in the group stages with a number of strong performances. Mertens has, quite surprisingly, been Belgium’s best player thus far.

That long list of current and future stars is overshadowed by Eden Hazard, the precocious genius of the bunch. After dominating French soccer, he moved to Chelsea and didn’t miss a beat. Hazard works as a modern left winger, using his positional freedom to drift inside or stay high and wide, depending on where the space is. Hazard is the full package: A winger who can pass, cross, shoot with accuracy, and drive at a defense, drawing double coverage and opening up gaps for teammates.

Don’t be hurt by Hazard

Oddly, Hazard has been nothing more than mediocre thus far in Brazil. Expecting that to continue against the United States would be about as intelligent as relying on Andrew Wenger to carry your offense. Hazard will be influential, and how the Americans manage his matchup with Fabian Johnson will say a lot about their gameplan. It is likely that Jermaine Jones will have to play a slightly more conservative role than he enjoyed in the group stages to keep an eye on the dangerous winger. As good as Jones has been in this World Cup, he will be playing on a yellow card against a player that can make the ball disappear; caution will be warranted.

Mertens performances paper over major weakness

Dries Mertens has exploited the way teams defend Belgium by attacking the space on the right side of the formation at speed. For this reason, the United States cannot shade Kyle Beckerman to Eden Hazard’s side. Mertens has been the player popping up in the space in front of the opposition back four when Kevin De Bruyne drifts out of the middle to create.

De Bruyne’s movement is excellent, and if there is one thing issue that stands out as holding Belgium back in this cup (well, aside from their best player being, again, quite mediocre) it is the inability of Axel Witsel’s midfield partner to get forward into the space De Bruyne leaves behind. As a result, Lukaku has been isolated and Mertens has had to slide inside to provide creativity in the final third.

Thus far, Mousa Dembele and Marouane Fellaini have joined Witsel in the middle of the pitch. Both have been poor to mediocre, and the United States will have to focus on pressuring the center of the park and attacking on the dribble. Dembele and Witsel are both on yellow cards and will be reluctant to make tackles, while Fellaini would have to learn about tackling before he could be reluctant to do it.

Who and where to attack

As hinted at above, there is one area where the US has a huge advantage over Belgium: Outside back.

Belgium essentially plays with four central defenders. Why? Because they have a lot of very good central defenders on the roster, and very few wingbacks. Head coach Marc Wilmots preferred back four is Toby Alderweireld on the right (a CB for Atletico Madrid), Kompany, Vermaelen, and Vertonghen on the left. Both Alderweireld and Vertonghen are smooth with the ball but awkward going forward, acting more like holding midfielders in wide positions than modern attacking fullbacks.

The United States can exploit the Belgian fullbacks with the speed of Damarcus Beasley and Fabian Johnson. Keeping the quickness of Johnson and Beasley salient in the minds of the Belgium defenders will make them think twice before joining attacks and isolate Hazard and Mertens on the wings (though Mertens will likely look to make interior runs anyway). And like their central midfielders, Vertonghen and Alderweireld are both carrying a card, meaning they will cost themselves a chance to play in the quarterfinals if they haul someone back.

As if it needs to be said…

…The US needs more from Michael Bradley.

And not only because Bradley plays the best killer ball through midfield. Without Bradley’s passing, the United States struggles mightily to retain possession for extended periods of time. After three matches in the heat, those extended possessions take on even greater importance; every moment you are passing the ball around is a moment you are not chasing the opposition.

Some big questions

And the biggest is named Jozy. Nobody seems to know for sure whether Altidore will be available on Tuesday. The big striker would be a huge help to an American team that needs someone to play with their back to goal and bring people into attack. Additionally, Altidore stays higher than Dempsey and collects the ball with defenders on his back, and the Belgian defenders cannot afford to come through him and pick up a card.

Who starts on the wing

This probably comes down to Zusi or Bedoya. The latter is a better all-around player, but what Zusi provides in terms of service (and in terms of his on-field relationship with Dempsey) may push the Sporting Kansas City man into the first eleven.

Who partners Matt Besler

Was Geoff Cameron benched against Germany for tactical reasons? Because of his performance against Portugal? Because he needed a rest? Regardless, Omar Gonzalez came in and played well (though far from as well as the Omar Gonzalez Fan Club at MLSsoccer.com would have you believe).

Does Tim Howard start in goal

Yes. Just need a chance to remind you that Tim Howard is amazing.

Prediction: United States 1-1 Belgium (penalties!)

If the Americans can defend Hazard and Mertens, and keep up on set pieces against the big Belgians in the box (Lukaku, Fellaini, Vertonghen, Kompany, Alderweireld), they have every chance to move on. Belgium scored only four goals in a very weak group, and the gap between their ability and their showing so far is extremely large. Frustrating the Belgians early should turn this match into a cagey one, with the favored side becoming increasingly anxious as the clock ticks on.

The United States may not be in the same league as Belgium talent-wise, but if they stay well-organized and attack with speed on the flanks, they can make this World Cup even more memorable for American fans.

Suspended next yellow

United States

  • Jermaine Jones
  • Kyle Beckerman
  • Omar Gonzalez

Belgium

  • Toby Alderweireld (RB/CB)
  • Jan Vergonghen (LB/CB)
  • Axel Witsel (DCM/CM)
  • Mousa Dembele (CM)
Injuries

United States

  • Jozy Altidore (questionable)

Belgium

  • Anthony Vanden Borre (out — broken fibula)
  • Thomas Vermaelen (questionable)
  • Vincent Kompany (questionable)

8 Comments

  1. It should noted that Kompany & Vermaelen are both “Doubtful” to play tomorrow – – not “Questionable”. That changes A LOT for the USA getting forward in attacking.

    • Adam Cann says:

      Yeah, I should have been clearer about that. That “questionable” was really me saying, “Who knows what to believe about these injuries.” Mostly because I can’t imagine Kompany missing out unless he’s actually down a limb.

  2. Great One says:

    Just got an update on my phone that US Soccer announced that Jozy is fit to play.

  3. OneManWolfpack says:

    With the Belgium injuries this game is really a crap shoot. I really believe the US can win

  4. MB should be rested for a change. Start Bedoya & bring in Davis. Press more than against Germany – Johnson overlapping. Keep Belgium off the board in the first 30 minutes & watch the pressure build. Hold Jozy in reserve. No second yellow for Jones.

    • The Black Hand says:

      Gonna be tough to get our midfielders pressing, with Belgium touting a very strong midfield. I see the US keeping bodies in the middle of the pitch. Our pressure will have to come from our outside backs, which is most threatening to the Belgium defenders. Our CB’s are going to have to have the game of their lives!!! I agree with keeping Jozy as a sub. His coming on later will put a lot of pressure on the Beligium back line, allowing Clint to get some space around the 18. We can win this!!!
      .
      I would start and monitor Bradley. If he is lame, bring on Jozy, for Beckerman, and slide Bradley back a bit (with Jones).

  5. The Altidore being fit, might just be the US camp keeping Belgium guessing. I doubt he starts, even if he’s close.

    Comon USA.

  6. The Black Hand says:

    Started the day with some waffles…’Murican Waffles!

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