Featured, May 2013, USMNT

US Men Begin Critical Summer With Stern Test Against Belgium

As winter turns to summer, Clint Dempsey and the US have large challenges ahead, starting Wednesday in Cleveland.

As winter turns to summer, Clint Dempsey and the US have large challenges ahead, starting Wednesday in Cleveland.

Jon Levy

A rematch and a measuring stick match at Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium, the Factory of Sadness. Now let’s all hope Belgium is the recipient of that sadness in a rare turn; as anyone who’s aware of the NFL’s existence knows, it’s usually the hometown Cleveland Browns that drive their fans to cry into their beers.

Regardless, there has to be a decent amount of excitement not only in the US camp but in the supporters’ groups. This match signals the beginning of the “summer before the summer”, where an American team engrossed in a qualifying dogfight is thoroughly tested in friendlies, qualifiers and a regional tournament. Obviously there is no Confederations Cup, which means, sadly, there is no opportunity for a global signal of intent that the Americans intend to be a very tough out in Brazil, but there are plenty of opportunities, through these different competitions, for a definitive, signature moment. Over the next three months, the US will have plenty of chances at playing a match (or even tournament) where when the cycle ends late next summer, you look back as a writer or observer or fan and say, “That match, in the summer heat in 2013, that’s where things ______________” for this team. It is a summer to drive the narrative of the cycle, and yes, of Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure as gaffer, one direction or the other, and that’s exciting stuff. It starts tomorrow night in Cleveland, and while Belgium aren’t a “name-brand”, it is difficult to argue the fact that they are playing at a level comparable with the world’s best teams right now. That spells big opportunity for the US, and is why this match matters. Here’s a video from a contest our friends at The Shin Guardian had in 2010 to get you extra fired-up…

Let’s review the usual preview items:

The Venue: FirstEnergy Stadium, Cleveland, Ohio.

Kick and TV: 8 PM (Eastern), ESPN 2.

Weather: As pleasant as Cleveland can be this, or any, time of year. Mid-70’s and partly cloudy. Some thunderstorms will be roaming the area but it is unlikely (not impossible, unlikely) to affect the match.

Series: This is the 5th meeting all-time between Belgium and the United States. Belgium lead the all-time series 3-1-0. The United States defeated Belgium at the 1930 World Cup in Uruguay. The US have failed to score in the other three matches against the Belgians, including a 1-0 defeat in Brussels in 2011. In that match, played in a driving rain, Maurice Edu appeared to have leveled late but the goal was disallowed and Belgium held on for a victory in what was Jurgen Klinsmann’s third match as manager of the USMNT. This is the first match between the two countries on American soil.

Run DMB should earn cap 100 for the Yanks Wednesday night, putting him in elite company.

Run DMB should earn cap 100 for the Yanks Wednesday night, putting him in elite company.

What will we see out of The Yanks?

The last time the USMNT and Belgium met Jurgen Klinsmann still felt like the new teacher trying to understand his charges while winning them over. That first field trip to Europe didn’t go well. The tables aren’t quite turned this time around, but playing the match in one of the jewels of the American Midwest can’t hurt. Cleveland rocks, right?

The Yanks’ lineup should look a lot more like the real first team in this match than it will in DC against Germany. Here’s the latest list of Americans available for Wednesday night:

GOALKEEPERS (3) :Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Tim Howard (Everton), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire)
DEFENDERS (6) : DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy), Clarence Goodson (Brondby), Michael Parkhurst (Augsburg)
MIDFIELDERS (6) : Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders FC), Stuart Holden (Bolton), Jermaine Jones (Schalke), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
FORWARDS (5) : Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar), Terrence Boyd (Rapid Vienna), Clint Dempsey (Tottenham Hotspur), Herculez Gomez (Santos), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders FC)

Noticeably absent are Michael Bradley and the injured Stoke duo of Maurice Edu and Brek Shea (back in Dallas for injury treatment). The starting fullbacks are also omitted again, so until yesterday, it was safe to get ready for an Azteca encore of Beasley and Cameron out wide with Omar Gonzalez pairing Matt Besler in central defense again. Now here’s the rub: Geoff Cameron has been training almost exclusively at center back. Cameron commented on the transition to Yanks Abroad prior to training earlier this week, saying “I think I’m called in for playing center back. I played right back for a few games last time because of injuries and what not, but Michael Parkhurst is here, who plays right back, so you never know with him – he could be getting [in] there. It doesn’t matter where I play as long as I’m playing and I’ll be happy with that, but at the same time, I’m focused on playing center back right now.”

This is not a “shocking” move by Klinsmann by any means, but it does put Cameron back in the position where he first earned the manager’s trust last summer, and it does give the Americans a rather formidable central pairing, in your writer’s view, and it’s been a good while since that was the case. Guesses on the fullbacks are a dime a dozen at this point, but if Cameron’s comments are given full-weight, look for Beasley and Parkhurst to get the nods out wide, giving the US a back four of Beasley-Cameron-Besler/Gonzalez-Parkhurst. Matt Besler has acquitted himself very well of late- and was instrumental in the Americans “Alamo” style draw at the Azteca, and he’s been in camp, unlike Gonzalez, who arrived later, so we’ll give him the nod to start noting that it would not be shocking if Gonzalez is given the other spot, despite the fact that this would leave the Yanks with two right-footed players paired up in central defense.

Geoff Cameron says he's likely headed back to the US center after consecutive appearances on the flank.

Geoff Cameron says he’s likely headed back to the US center after consecutive appearances on the flank.

Either way, moving Cameron back to center back demonstrates that ahead of the Jamaica match, Klinsmann appears to have confidence in his fullbacks even without Steve Cherundolo, and he believes adding Cameron to the mix in the center gives the US strong depth, which is better than options for the sake of options. If Beasley plays in Cleveland, it will be his 100th cap for country, which will put him in pretty special company—only 12 other players have played as many matches for the US in 100 years of US Soccer.

Hopefully we’ll get a Stuart Holden sighting in midfield, but you can bet Jermaine Jones will be anchoring the midfield for his main man Jurgen. We will not, by God’s grace, see Danny Williams, who was busy watching Hoffenheim finish their season in Germany on Monday, which leaves the other midfield spot up for grabs. Holden would be a thoughtful “let’s see what happens” pick, but that in all likelihood would mean sitting Sacha Kljestan, who heads to Cleveland a champion again with Anderlecht and in the finest form of his career. Another advantage to pairing Kljestan with Jones in this match is player familiarity—Kljestan has competed against a large swath of this Belgium group at the club level, and is much more likely to understand tendencies and see the game develop. It is well-established that he is a more effective player when slotted in the central midfield, and with this group, there’s really no argument for another central player (outside of perhaps Holden) who would justify sliding Sacha out wide, where he tends to drift centrally too often and is a clumsy defender. As such, a Jones-Kljestan pairing seems the best option for Klinsmann, and it would be a formidable one—as these are the only two Americans to play for clubs that qualified outright for next year’s Champions League.

Out wide, Klinsmann will almost certainly play Graham Zusi, and then choose, based on his formation, between Brad Davis, Clint Dempsey, the late-arriving Brad Evans (less likely) and Eddie Johnson, who has done “okay” from width for country in 2013. The key to this game, however, will be the American center, which will be tasked with containing Everton maestro Marouane Fellani, who has run riot through much finer midfields in the Barclay’s Premier League, and whomever Marc Wilmots chooses to pair him with, whether it be Moussa Dembele of Tottenham Hotspur, Steven Defour of Porto, or both. Fight the Red Devils to a stalemate in the center, and contain Fellani, Kompany and company on set pieces, where they are among the world’s best sides, and the Yanks might steal a result.

Is Wednesday finally Jozy Altidore's day?

Is Wednesday finally Jozy Altidore’s day?

At forward, Klinsmann has not been predictable and it is tough to say precisely what he will do. Jozy Altidore will likely start, but we’ve written that before and ended up with egg on our faces. Regardless of the forward line that’s selected, Klinsmann knows his players need to be much, much better with the ball than they were in Belgium.

The 1-0 scoreline by which the Yanks lost that match was flattering to the USMNT to say the least. I don’t remember Jurgen Klinsmann’s “possession emphasizing” side stringing more than two passes together at any point, especially not outside of their own defensive zone. While some of this had to do with the driving rain and win, it was an easy day for Belgium’s Red Devils, and the onus is squarely on the US to show growth in this match. Above all, that means stopping Belgium from cutting through the middle third of the field with incuts and overlaps at their leisure. Seriously, don’t even go back and watch the “first leg” of this international friendly battle, it wasn’t a match like the one in France where you could pick out small victories here and there and you had to credit the Yanks for holding such a high line. No, this was a 1-0 Everton in the springtime under David Moyes against Wigan style beating, and the Americans can absolutely gauge this match as a test of their progress.

What to watch for from Belgium:

Marc Wilmot’s team has finally put it all together, and they’re playing to their potential. In fact, if you chart results to show trends like we do at TYAC, it is something they started doing right after the 2011 domination of the USMNT. You’re welcome.

Heading into that match the Belgian stars were looking like a bunch of great club players who could no longer put it together for country. They had missed out on qualifying for Euro 2012, a tournament that could have been a coming out part for Belgium on a full international level after a great Olympic performance by their U-23’s in 2008. So much for the juggernaut Belgium team of the future… until the US came into town and Stella Artois got her groove back.

To say that Axel Witsel and Eden Hazard dominated the match would be to shamefully undersell their performances. You know that once-every-three-matches-against-CONCACAF-opposition performance that we get out of Michael Bradley? The one where he eats their souls defensively and every pass off his foot springs the American attack? That’s what Axel Witsel did to us. And Eden Hazard made sure those attacks weren’t squandered. He twisted and turned the American back line the entire time he was on the field; it took multiple last ditch recovery challenges from frustrated defenders and world class saves from Tim Howard to keep the score to one-nil. Belgium has been on the rampage ever since. They’re first in their World Cup Qualification group, and the saving grace for the US team might just be the fact that the Red Devils have another qualifier against Serbia at the end of the week. I know it’s valuable to test yourself against the best, but it is not terribly disappointing news that Witsel and Hazard are headed home to nurse minor knocks ahead of the Serbia qualifier, rather than staying stateside in Ohio for this match.

Witsel and Hazard may be back in Belgium, but Marouane Fellani makes Belgium's midfield plenty dangerous.

Witsel and Hazard may be back in Belgium, but Marouane Fellani makes Belgium’s midfield plenty dangerous.

The absence of Hazard and Witsel means, in our view, a trio of things for the Belgian attack. First, the Belgian incut attack where Fellani plays point man and distributes to either Hazard or Witsel stationed at a diagonal position outside the area, and then one of those two heads toward goal while looking for a late-cutting overlap or incut is a bit less lethal (read: not as world class). Second, it places more onus on Moussa Dembele, who all Spurs fans know runs the gambit from hot to ice-cold, to play well and execute these incuts and/or overlaps, especially given the fact that Porto man Steven Defour isn’t the type of midfielder that frightens you in attack, but rather is the bulldog of this group, strong in his tackles and clean in simple, short distributions. Finally, and this may help Belgium more than hurt them, it opens the door for Fellani’s club teammate Kevin Mirallas to use his pace and physicality to link-up with Fellani in a more direct, attacking style. We saw the duo do this quite effectively for Everton against Spurs and Manchester City late in the Barclay’s Premier League season, but it is a bit more predictable. The rapport these two players have, however, may offset the heightened predictability.

In defense, Belgium have been frighteningly strong in World Cup qualifying, conceding only one goal in six matches. This isn’t a group of defenders that is going to ignite world class counterattacks Wednesday night, but they do contribute goals on set pieces better than most teams in the universe (Van Buyten has ten in his career, Vertonghen four, Kompany four, etc.) and they are a big group that despite their size are not foul-heavy. This means the US will need to execute to score—there will not be frequent breakdowns, and the Red Devils will be in immaculate positions more often than not. If there is a question mark in the back, it is Sunderland backstop Simon Mignolet, who is still relatively new in his tenure as starting goalkeeper for country and is somewhat mistake-prone for club.

All in all, even with some late scratches, this is a formidable, nearly full-strength Belgian side and a result will be difficult for the Americans.

After teaming up with Brad Guzan to keep Villa afloat, Christian Benteke will look to stay aflame vs. the US defense.

After teaming up with Brad Guzan to keep Villa afloat, Christian Benteke will look to stay aflame vs. the US defense.

Belgian Player to Watch: Christian Benteke

Meanwhile, a guy that will almost certainly see the field in this match is on fire for a club where he plays with a couple Americans. Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke (pronounced BEN-teck-eh) is just as responsible for the Villans’ survival as American shot stopper Brad Guzan. He’s a goal-scoring machine, and he’s definitely in the running to be Belgium’s first choice striker. Romelu Lukaku may be better, but over and over again he’s shown the ability to impact the game coming off the bench, so if Benteke can stay hot, he just might win himself the job. And there isn’t so much distance between Lukaku, PSV’s Dries Mertens, and Benteke that two will definitively be starters and the others will sit. Without Hazard and Witsel, the Belgian forwards will need to impact the game on their own, and if Wilmots relies on form, Benteke will be his man.

Benteke is fast, he’s quality, and though he may not shrug off challenges like Lukaku, he just might be a better finisher. Start fearing this dude now. And stay back Omar, Geoff and Matt, stay back!

US Player to Watch: Stuart Holden

He’s back! Finally! I don’t care if he’s an 85th minute sub, Stu Holden is the US Player to Watch in this match. Like many of you, I’ll admit to having seen just a little of his play since returning to the field for Bolton Wanderers, so I’m especially excited to see Holden back in the red, white, and blue.

How will Jurgen use Stu? Bob Bradley used Holden as his midfield Swiss army knife, playing him in both the central midfield spots and on either wing on a case-by-case basis. Klinsmann has been doing the same with natural defensive midfielder/unnatural everything else Germerican Danny Williams. Danny has the want-to, but is a limited player. Stu Holden meanwhile, has all the skill and footballing instincts to be either Graham Zusi or Michael Bradley in any given match for the USMNT. Now let’s see if he’s all the way back from his spate of devastating injuries.

Prediction: USA 1-1 Belgium

I just don’t see the Yanks getting the result in this match. It’s a good lineup for the Yanks, but not the A-team (best possible squad, not the gang of good guy mercenaries), and Belgium brought their no-messin’-around World Cup Qualification squad, minus the two starters sent home to rest prior to the Serbia match. Even if they rest their best players for a half, they’ll still have to field a bunch of them at the same time, and it will be far from a “B” team the Americans face Wednesday night.

That said, the US will compete in this match, which is a hell of a lot more than they could say after their trip to Brussels. Well deserved goals for both squads and a great back and forth match.

BONUS NOTE: An American squad comprised of most the dudes that will fight for the U-20 World Cup this summer in Turkey is in the midst of Toulon Tournament in France right now. They’re coached by Tab Ramos. They were a lot of fun to watch in the CONCACAF U-20 qualifying tourney, and these matches are televised on beIN Sport. Don’t sleep.

Enjoy the match(es), and Go USA!

Jon Levy is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at jon.f.levy@gmail.com and you can and should follow his underrated, criminally underfollowed Twitter account at @TYAC_Jon.