When the Americans take the field at 3 p.m. Tuesday to play Belgium, they will be one of only nine countries left in the World Cup.
Welcome to the big time.
It was a superb first-round performance just to escape the Group of Death, but the team, its fans and the whole nation should not be satisfied with that. Don’t assume that it’s a forgone conclusion that the adventure ends Tuesday, and the U.S. team is absolutely capable of springing an upset and winning the match.
Indeed, if the Americans need inspiration, they need look no further than Sunday’s games featuring their neighbors. Mexico came within two minutes of knocking out the Netherlands, which has an enviable World Cup pedigree of reaching the final three times. Costa Rica had just 10 men for an hour but finally saw off much-higher-ranked Greece on penalty kicks.
The U.S. team has proved that it deserves to be strutting its stuff on the global stage. The Americans beat an athletic and talented Ghana team and came within 20 seconds of defeating Ronaldo-fueled Portugal, the fourth-best country on the planet. The powerful German juggernaut, the second choice to win the tournament, dominated possession against them but could only find the back of the net once — and that was from a set play. There is no reason to feel daunted about facing our Flemish friends.
The U.S. team should respect the Belgians but not fear them. In the official FIFA rankings, they are just two places above the Americans in 11th. And if this World Cup has taught us anything, it is that reputation means nothing.
Belgium is many experts’ dark horse for the tournament, but it has yet to replicate the form it found in the European qualifying competition. After decades in the global soccer wilderness, this has been touted as the Belgians’ golden generation, and they have a handful of players who merit a place on any national team on Earth. But you could convincingly argue that Clint Dempsey has made more of an impact and created a greater impression in the past two weeks than any of those more illustrious names.
The Chelsea duo of winger Eden Hazard and striker Romelu Lukaku are forwards with the skill and experience to hurt the States, but the squad is not packed with the same deep bench that Germany has, for example. It has been reported that the Belgians have a growing injury list, and they relied on central defender Daniel van Buyten to play every minute of the first-round matches, and he is 36 — a senior citizen in soccer terms.
So far, they have not clicked as a team and coughed and sputtered their way into the Round of 16. Although they won all three group contests, they squeaked through by a single goal against Algeria, Russia and South Korea. That’s hardly the form to strike terror into an opponent’s heart.
Apart from Costa Rica, they are the weakest of the eight group winners, and U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann would much rather be facing them than the likes of Argentina. Imagine what a soccer signal the U.S. would send to the world if it wins Tuesday and book a ticket to the quarterfinals while in Brazil, the spiritual home of the sport.
So what do the Americans need to do to give fans back home an excuse to start their Fourth of July parties early? In a few words: Keep it tight.
If it’s an open, expansive contest, then the talented, twinkle-toed Belgian attackers could rip the limited U.S. defense to shreds. The States must nullify the Belgians’ individual brilliance with a collective work ethic: Close them down, deny them time and space, and fight for every ball.
When the Americans do gain control of the ball, they must use it better than they did against the Germans. Too often they squandered possession and gave the ball away with sloppy passes and unforced errors. Scoring chances are going to be few and far between, so when they create a precious opportunity, they have to make the most of it.
There is a joke back in Britain that there are no famous Belgians. The only one that the world has heard of is Hercule Poirot, a detective created by the famous mystery writer Agatha Christie — and he is a fictional character!
Let’s hope that when we go to bed Tuesday night, the only Belgian name on our lips is that of keeper Thibaut Courtois — because he was beaten for the U.S. team’s winning goal.