For the first time in U.S. Soccer history, the Americans have qualified for the knockout stages for the second consecutive World Cup.
But will they be able to get past this stage and advance to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2002?
Jozy Altidore has been cleared to play. The team is on four days’ rest. The Belgians looked anything but overpowering in the group stages. In short, this is a great chance for the United States to advance (assuming the Algerian referee who has been assigned to the match — the US eliminated Algeria four years ago, and that Algerian team was more interested in keeping the US from advancing than from advancing themselves) doesn’t decide to sway the outcome.
Let’s hope that doesn’t play into the game and that the US can just focus on the following three keys to knock off Belgium in the World Cup in Salvador, Brazil.
1. Attack the central defense from the start
The US dropped into a deep, defending formation against Germany in the final group game and never dug themselves a way out. They spent so much time playing defense they never built an effective counterattack. Never built any counterattack really until late into stoppage time.
There is no need to do that here. For one thing, Belgium isn’t Germany. As good as the Belgians are they haven’t looked as dangerous as Germany have. For another, Belgium’s central defensive pairing of Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen might be missing.
Vermaelen has already been ruled out. Kompany, the Belgian captain, is battling a groin injury.
The US need to approach this like Portugal. Get possession and maintain possession. Pass the ball around. Make Belgium do some defending. Build toward an attack. The chances will be there early and they will definitely come again late.
2. Contain Hazard
Eden Hazard has the ability to control a game by himself. The left winger has an impressive deftness of touch with the ball and can set up players with amazing accuracy.
He can also attack by taking the ball deep along the end line before looking for crosses to Romelu Lukaku or Maroune Fellaini.
The US can’t let him break free like they did Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo got one final touch in the 95th minute and the US found themselves tied with Portugal instead of earning a victory in their second group game.
Hazard can strike in much the same fashion. He isn’t flashy like Ronaldo, but he’s just as effective.
3. Pair up defensively
With the way Omar Gonzalez played against Germany, Jurgen Klinsmann might have central defenders in spades.
Geoff Cameron played his way out of the Germany game, losing his start to Gonzalez following two huge blunders against Portugal. During the three US’ friendlies games it was often the Cameron-Matt Besler combo that looked shaky in the center of the US defense.
Now Klinsmann must make the decision: go back to Cameron and hope the defender is refocused, or go with Gonzalez and let him rejoin Matt Besler as the successful central defensive pairing that helped win a Gold Cup.
Join Scott Kaniewski at 1:45 p.m. on Tuesday for a live chat at gazette.com throughout the duration of the United States’ round of 16 match with Belgium or follow him on Twitter at @scottkaniewski5 for running game commentary.