World Cup Preview: Belgium vs. USMNT

People will say that the US is lucky to be in the Round of 16. They’ll say, as we did, that Pepe, the Portugal centerback, had just as much to do with getting the US to the knockouts as anything any US player did. They’ll note that they faced a weakened Portugal and lost to a German team that really didn’t have much to play for in their match, the score as close as it was because the Germans didn’t need anything more than the 1-0 win they ended up with. They looked anything but convincing against Ghana, switched off at two important moments against Portugal and couldn’t get anything past the German defense.

Yet, they got the four points they needed. They looked rampant before Jozy Altidore’s injury against Ghana forced them to change their entire game-plan for the tournament within 30 minutes and a multitude of cramping players took away the US’s greatest assets of speed and stamina. The draw against Portugal demonstrated that the US could learn on the fly, adapting to their new formation, new players in unfamiliar positions with little rapport, and even a weakened Portugal still featured great players, who the US stymied and frustrated. The Germany game was actually very promising, despite some tactical decisions that may not have worked (especially Brad Davis, who was overrun until Klinsmann switched him and Zusi, which reduced the latter’s impact as he was on the wrong wing to use his favored foot), and the US played up to their opponents, turning in some sublime moments and never backing down in the face of superior firepower.

That’s how the USMNT got here. They did enough. They scraped and scrapped when the could not dominate. They cleared their lines in desperation when they could not play the ball out carefully. Their best has been good enough, if not necessarily awe-inspiring.

If you had told me before the tournament that Michael Bradley was our third best midfielder in the group stages, I would have assumed that we lost all three matches. Yet, for several reasons, we’ve managed to survive and advance without Bradley making much of an impact on the field. Jermaine Jones has played the best he’s ever done for the national team over the three games thus far. As he and Kyle Beckerman and Bradley continue to gel together, to reach a better understanding of one another’s games and anticipate one another’s movements, the unit actually covers up for some its weaknesses and can paper over a bit of Bradley’s run of mediocrity.

Yet, let’s remember that Bradley’s role is to transition the team from defense to offense, and both phases have been different in each of the US’ three games thus far. The US had relied on Altidore’s combination of hold-up play and speed (in basketball terms, we’re thinking of a Chris Webber type of forward, who can pass from the post, but can also handle the ball on the fast break) in its initial gameplan and in the tuneups in the month before the World Cup started. And it was working. But with his injury, Dempsey becomes the lone man up front, and as skilled as he is, he can’t play Altidore’s game. He needs to move into spaces and receive the ball with room (again in basketball: someone like Ray Allen, who only needs a little space to get a shot off, but can also get the defender off balance and blow past him if they play the shot too close).

When the focal point of the offense changes, how you get into it must change as well. The moving parts — not just Bradley (as the nominal point guard in this scenario), but all the other players — change, not only in where they are, and who they are, but how they interact with one another. It’s an adjustment that takes time, and Bradley has looked more and more at ease in the new look with every game. Jones’ new role allows him to advance further up and keep pace with Bradley and share responsibility on both offense and defense, but with the greater offensive load to one and defensive to the other (this is probably like having one guard primarily bring the ball up and another who marks the opponent’s initiator, but not exactly because …).

They’re allowed this new freedom because Kyle Beckerman has stayed back and protected the defensive, cutting out balls and slowing the runs of oncoming attackers enough to allow Bradley, Jones and the fullbacks time to get back into position. If the US played a transition game for 90 minutes, they’d get cut to pieces. They need to slow it down occasionally, pack the midfield and crowd their defensive half. Beckerman has been fantastic at this, as have the centerbacks when they’ve been called on to be in position to cover for Fabian Johnson and DeMarcus Beasley. Jones has actually also done this well.

This is all to say that Bradley’s performance needs to be graded on a curve, and how he does today will go a long way to deciding whether or not the US advances. Being able to get the US into their offense after packing tight in the center around the creative but generally narrow midfield of the Belgians is a daunting task. Especially if Klinsmann persists with Zusi and Bedoya on the outside in the 4-5-1 (4-3-2-1, whatever) he’s likely to use. The five midfielders should be able to choke off some of the distribution from Kevin Be Bruyne (their version of Bradley) and either of Moussa Dembele or Marouane Fellaini, especially as — like Germany — they play four centerbacks across the back with no natural fullbacks*, so the attacks will have to come through the center, where the US has a numbers advantage.

Yet, with three forwards, including a 23 year old starlet in Eden Hazard who’s coming into his own and could go supernova if given time and space, the US can’t completely give up the outside channels and sidelines, or the Belgian attackers will fill them. Dries Mertens has gotten into dangerous areas all throughout the tournament by simply finding the empty space down the sides, and though much of his passing has gone for naught,, the law of averages says Romelu Lukaku will get on the end of one eventually . That said, pressing up on the midfielders and slowing them down will make long passes more difficult and less efficient.

That being said, being overly defensive will mean trying to work our way past Dembele/Fellaini and Alex Witsel, as well as Belgium’s strong defensive backline. Thomas Vermaelen is supposed to be out, and Vincent Kompany is rumored to be as well, which would help, but the Belgians can just continue to throw quality centerbacks out like so many chocolates. The best tactic might be to get DeAndre Yedlin’s speed out there to combine with Fabian Johnson down one side, since though the Belgian back is large and in charge, they’re not exactly the paciest bunch. Working the sidelines and trying to draw them out of shape might be the US’ best chance at gaining an advantage.

I don’t know what’s going to happen in a few hours. I can’t say for sure whether or not the midfield will continue to improve and impress or whether it will be overrun by the Belgians as it was in their last friendly against them. Belgium have not looked like world beaters, despite winning their group. They started slow in every match and have left the outcome late in every one. A quick US goal could prove decisive, allowing them to sit deep and use their numerical advantage in the midfield to park the bus in front of Tim Howard (who has been his usual outstanding self, and has marshaled the defense into good positions for cover regularly).

This is not a gimme for Belgium, nor a lost cause for the US. The odds are that Belgium will win, but it’s not a foregone conclusion as it might have been against some of the other teams left in the tournament (Colombia, for instance, would detonate us in a flash of fire; Chile would have ground us to dust). Marc Wilmots, the Belgian coach, has done a masterful job with substitutions and altering his strategy on the fly when Plan A isn’t working. Klinsmann has also shown a knack for adjusting to the game as its playing rather than as it was expected.

The US is playing with house money right now. No one expected them to escape the group and no one expects them to beat Belgium. But keeping up with them, frustrating them and denying them time to pick out clever passes through the middle, gives them a chance to get past them. But they need to do more than frustrate the Belgians. They need to drag them out of shape and tire them out. Johnson, Beasley and Zusi (or Yedlin if he makes an appearance) need to attack the fullbacks, to run at them and then shoot or find Clint Dempsey (PBUH) near the keeper (see: crotch goal), and the midfielders when they catch up, to put shots on from the edge of the box (see: Jones’ screamer).

This game can be won by either team. Even if Belgium have seven or eight players (including a fantastic keeper) valued at over 30 million dollars, and the US have, well, none. Sometimes one team simply matches up poorly against another, and the way the Belgians have been going — narrow yet reliant on crosses from wide to score; starting slowly; sluggish fullbacks — plays right into the hands of how the US have done their business — bruising, packed midfield and tall centerbacks, pressuring from minute one; using speed down the flanks to open space in the middle. I’m not saying the US will win, I’m just saying they can.

I’m saying there’s a chance.

Now set your Outlooks to “Offsite Meeting” from 3:30 to 7:00, find a bar and drink and scream and jump. Try your damnedest to be in one of those reaction videos they show in case the US wins. This should be fun as hell.

*Jan Vertonghen is the most likely to make forays from the back, and he can be equally dangerous and calamitous, having given up a penalty in their first match against Algeria, scrambling to get back to cover.

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