The United States national team has defied expectations by qualifying for the knockout stages of the World Cup, when many had them going home early as a result of being placed in a “group of death” including Germany, Portugal, and Ghana. This is the first time the Americans have reached the knockout rounds of the World Cup in consecutive runnings of the tournament. For them to go any further, however, they will have to overcome the team that has generally been alluded to as the dark horse of the competition.
Belgium Lack a Team Mentality
Belgium comes into the knockout rounds having progressed through the group stage with a perfect record, although the group itself was far less competitive than that of the US. On paper, the Belgians have one of the strongest starting XI’s in the tournament. Players like Eden Hazard, Axel Witsel, Jan Vertonghen, and Vincent Kompany are leaders and the difference-makers at their respective clubs.
However, when these stars are thrown together and asked to perform as a team, there are some who doubt their capabilities. Former US national team defender Alexi Lalas claims, “Sometimes you go up against a group with a bunch of individuals that just have so much talent it doesn’t matter that they’re a group or not. I don’t think this Belgium team is like that – they have to play like a team in order to beat the US.” Belgium, although containing a squad vastly superior to any of the teams in their group, only managed to beat each team by one goal. A lack of cohesion in the squad or playing style is undoubtedly the cause of this.
The United States national team is exactly that, a team. Jürgen Klinsmann has spent the last 3 years since his appointment in 2011 developing the US youth system for the future but also forging a bond between the current members of the squad. The squad itself, although nowhere near as competent as Germany or Portugal in terms of individual quality, managed to dominate the game versus the 4th ranked (by FIFA) Portuguese and stifle the world class German attack.
Thomas Vermaelen is Out and Vincent Kompany is a Doubt
Seasoned defender Thomas Vermaelen has been ruled out of the round-of-16 clash because of a strained hamstring. Another veteran defender, Vincent Kompany, who is widely considered to be one of the best defenders in the world, is doubtful because of groin pain and an abdominal issue.
Kompany and Vermaelen are easily Belgium’s two best centerbacks. While Nicolas Lombaerts is a viable option to replace one of the two, Klinsmann will be licking his lips while thinking of the problems that the US can cause on the counterattack.
Belgium Lack a Natural Left Back
Belgium arrived at the World Cup without a natural left back. Belgium coach Marc Wilmots has chosen instead to play Jan Vertonghen in that role even though he plays as a centerback for his club team, Tottenham Hotspur. Playing Vertonghen out of position may create a favorable situation for the adventurous US right back, Fabian Johnson. Portugal struggled to contain Johnson because their natural left back, Fabio Coentrao, was out due to injury. Klinsmann will be looking to recreate this situation against a different opponent. Two on one situations on the right side of huge Belgian defense may be the key.
Defensive frailties and squad cohesion may be the keys to the match in Salvador, Brazil on Tuesday as the United States looks to write another exciting chapter in its fairly new saga of soccer fever.