2014 FIFA World Cup, Featured, June 2014, USMNT, World Cup 2014

USA vs. Belgium: A Conquerable Hazard? The TYAC Preview

Quarterfinal on the line Tuesday.

Quarterfinal on the line Tuesday.

Jon Levy, Neil W. Blackmon and Kartik Krishnaiyer 

Belgium – USA: Your TYAC Sweet 16 Preview

Can we just settle this thing in beer? Joking. Here’s beer and TYAC soccer preview pairing recommendations from NPR before you dive into our look at the match, however.

I’m(the last of the TYAC gang) back in the United States of America, and I’m in a celebratory mood, so before we get into the particulars on USA/Belgium I’m going to bullet point a couple things worth celebrating.

-Welcome to the Yanks to the knockout round, for the second World Cup in a row! New heights, believe it or not.

-And this team safely navigated out of the Group of Death to make it to said knockout round. New heights again.

-There’s a strong argument to be made that Jermaine Jones is a starter on the hypothetical “team of the tournament” after the group stage. That’s just awesome. This is the World Cup, not the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Okay, time to throw some cold water on the party and some analysis on this great/nightmare matchup with the official dark horse favorite of the 2014 tournament.

Benteke crushed the US in Cleveland. He's not here for the World Cup.

Benteke crushed the US in Cleveland. He’s not here for the World Cup.

Our usual preview. It begins with:

Series: 6th Meeting. Belgium lead, 4-1-0. 

There’s no youtube clips to prove it just FIFA history books (shaking our fist) but the United States did defeat Belgium the only other time the two sides met in a World Cup. That happened in Uruguay. It was 1930. 

Since that 3-0 American victory the two teams have only played on four occasions. Two of those matches, however, occurred under present day manager Jurgen Klinsmann.

The Yanks played Belgium early in the Klinsmann era- his third match in charge, to be precise– and lost in rainy Brussels 1-0. In that defeat, the Americans played a deep-lying backline and absorbed pressure throughout the first half before falling behind on a Nicholas Lombaerts strike early in the second half.  Before you make too much of that match, keep in mind that among the Americans to play in that match were: Steve Cherundolo, Clarence Goodson, Jose Torres, Maurice Edu, Juan Agudelo, Jeff Larentowicz, Robbie Rogers, Brek Shea and Carlos Bocanegra. Of the Americans we tap to start Tuesday, only Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey featured. 

The second meeting under Klinsmann, a 4-2 match dominated by the Red Devils in Cleveland’s “Sadness Factory” (highlights above), saw the Americans play a very high defensive line and the Belgians exploit it early and often. Christian Benteke scored twice for Belgium, but the real damage came on two frenetic Belgian counters. The first came in the 7th minute where Geoff Cameron and Omar Gonzalez were caught ball-watching after a Howard save on Lukaku fell to Kevin Mirallas. The US would equalize on awful Belgian set piece defending through Geoff Cameron to have a draw at the break- but the tie was short-lived as Benteke seared Omar Gonzalez on a nice ball from Kevin de Bruyne to give the Belgians a lead they’d never relinquish.

The US eleven that match:  Howard; Cameron, Gonzalez, Goodson, Beasley; Zusi, Jones, Kljestan, Davis; Dempsey, Altidore. 

If that looks rather close to a World Cup roster- well, of course it is. The good news for the Yanks is that was the last match they’d lose all summer, storming to wins over Germany and victory in the Gold Cup. The bad news? Their experiment with both playing Omar Gonzalez and a high line against Belgium was a massive failure.

Interesting food for thought.

Jermaine Jones was gassed in Recife. How much will be left in the tank?

Jermaine Jones was gassed in Recife. How much will be left in the tank?

The Weather: 81 at kick. Fifty percent chance of a thunderstorm. 

Salvador, climate-wise, is, at least relative to the rest of the US venues thus far, a bit more temperate this time of year. It will still be warm and the humidity will be high, but the Americans, who have certainly earned the rest they’ve gotten leading up to the match, should be well-adjusted and able to cope. Belgium are dealing with a bunch of injuries themselves, and are certainly the team more likely to be affected by the heat. 

That said, it is worth noting that Belgium have closed fast in every game at the tournament, scoring late goals to steal victories from the mouths of draws against Russia and Algeria alike. They are also very well-rested, as Marc Wimots fielded a wildly different lineup for the final group stage match against South Korea than he had all tournament- a luxury he was afforded because the Red Devils needed only two matches to secure knockout stage qualification. Point being: Belgium are deep and have excelled late in matches. If the heat and humidity bother them in Salvador, it would be surprising.

Introducing our guest: Kartik Krishnaiyer. Krishnaiyer, who is an editor at World Soccer Talk, is one of the more astute Barclay’s Premier League writers in the United States. This makes him perfect for Belgium analysis, as more than any team in the knockout stage, the Red Devils are led by a host of Barclay’s Premier League stars. A lifelong lover of the beautiful game, Kartik served from January 2010 until May 2013 as the Director of Communications and Public Relations for the North American Soccer League (NASL). Raised on the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the old NASL, Krishnaiyer previously hosted the American Soccer Show on the Champions Soccer Radio Network, the Major League Soccer Talk podcast and the EPL Talk Podcast. His soccer writing has been featured by several media outlets including The Guardian and The Telegraph. He is the author of the book Blue With Envy about Manchester City FC.

We’re thrilled to have him join TYAC for this preview, and as such, we’ll split the next section intwo two segments.

Alex Witsel- one of the many talented Belgians in the midfield.

Axel Witsel- one of the many talented Belgians in the midfield.

First, the usual:

Jon Levy on “What will we see out of Belgium”?

The Red Devils are a ridiculously talented squad (think 1990’s Dallas Cowboys at the skill positions) with depth and copious club-level credentials at every position but striker, and even that apparent void behind Lukaku looks to be disappearing with backup striker Divock Origi actively taking part in some lethal late-game attacks. Oh yeah, and they have one of the stingiest defenses in the World Cup.

So what justifies the positive side of my “great/nightmare matchup” for the USMNT description? In truth, not too much, but let’s run it down before getting to the doom and gloom.

Much of this Belgium team took part in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Tournament. The Under-23 squad went on a magical run that had football experts and hack journo’s alike calling them a “Golden Generation,” destined to be a force in international football for years to come. These guys then failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. They’d all been great for their clubs, but hadn’t put a consistent run together with the senior national team until the World Cup 2014 Qualifying campaign. Granted, now these guys are well into their respective primes, and fresh outta excuses. 

So how do these guys start each of their Group of Doormats (& Belgium) matches in Brazil? Like a house of fire, right? Harnessing all the power of a cultured midfield and towering aerial threats? Nope. Belgium starts each match in the group stage in neutral, not truly hitting stride until deep into the second half against Algeria, Russia, and South Korea. Talk about a contrast with their red hot start against the US in a friendly last summer. That match was a thrashing from the word “go,” but the Yanks used it as a learning experience, and have since reserved a solitary early horror show performance for the now customary World Cup Qualifying loss on the road in Costa Rica.

And, as noted in “The Series” section, we’ll reach all the way back to September of 2011 for even more encouragement. An early European friendly under Klinsmann saw a very much in-transition USMNT travel to Brussels and, like Belgium’s Group H opponents, hold off the more talented team for the bulk of the match before falling one-nil to a second half goal. Despite generating a few scoring chances of their own, the Yanks were merely hard-working passengers in that night’s match. But as recent performances are showing, they likely will play a larger part in the match on Tuesday.

So what’s all the negativity about when it comes to this matchup? Quite simply, it’s about some of the best players in the world, each being used exactly as they should be by manager Marc Wilmots. Romelu Lukaku, while young, is the total package talent-wise as a stiker up top, and he’s supported by deadly fast winger Dries Mertens, and the Chelsea wizard Eden Hazard. Behind this impressive attacking trio sits the best three-man midfield unit in this tournament: Marouane Fellaini, Kevin De Bruyne, and still one of the most underrated players in the world in Axel Witsel.

Now normally I’d write about the experience, guile, and steel on Belgium’s backline, and believe me, as technical footballers, it’s all there, but the Belgian defense is facing something of an injury crisis coming into this match. And yes, they’ve got depth, but you can’t make a like-for-like substitution for Vincent Kompany, who’s doubtful to play, unless you can bring in Thiago Silva, and he’s Brazillian. Compound the Kompany knock with an injury to Arsenal center half Thomas Vermaelen, and Belgium could be without two of their most important players on the backline. Beyond this, they lack a proper fullback- more on that in the “US” section– so there’s are width issues, at least in terms of what they offer on the overlap. That’s one thing that won’t change. The injuries are another question mark- but those players could certainly recover in time for this match, so don’t count your chickens just yet US Soccer fans.

Vincent Kompany's leadership is crucial.

Vincent Kompany’s leadership is crucial.

For more on what to expect from the Red Devils, we turn to Kartik Krishnaiyer, who answered five questions.

 1)    TYAC:  Let’s start with Belgium personnel. They are led, more than any team in the knockout phase, by Barclays Premier League personnel. Talk generally about those players for our readers who are newer to the game.

 Belgium on paper has a very impressive side. A problem though that we have seen pop up in this tournament thus far is the lack of chemistry between these players. Vincent Kompany and Eden Hazard are both superstars on leading English clubs. But some of the others like Kevin Mirallas and Mousa Dembele  are inconsistent players on sides that don’t compete for titles. Both are capable of the spectacular game changing move, while fading badly in critical moments. Nacer Chadli is an enigmatic player and Romelu Lukaku really cooled off the second half of the season for Everton. His indifferent form has continued into this tournament. Jan Vertonghen was subpar at times this past season for Spurs and while he is a very technical player, his positioning sense is not always so good. Marouane Fellaini had a poor season with Manchester United and he cannot be counted on to play at a high-level though his aerial presence is something the US must account for if he plays.

 2)      TYAC: The Belgian backline is dealing with a bunch of injuries and card accumulation concerns. How much can US fans expect from Vincent Kompany, who, when healthy, is probably one of the best two central defenders in the world (Thiago Silva)?

 The potential loss of Kompany is devastating for Belgium. Not just from a playing perspective but especially from a leadership one. He has had injury problems throughout much of the last season with Manchester City. A match where he was not fully fit and yet was played by Manuel Pellegrini resulted in a critical Liverpool victory thanks to Kompany’s errors. So Wilmots must be careful not to force him to play.

Can Fabian Johnson replicate his Portugal performance?

Can Fabian Johnson replicate his Portugal performance?

3)     TYAC: Belgium lack a proper fullback- and have fielded Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen in the back, who have been tentative with their forward running and cautious in possession.Without quick, technical, possessive players in wide positions- do you think the US can or should attempt to be aggressive initially, particularly from width?

 I believe the United States might have the ability to push Fabian Johnson in particular forward to challenge Vertonghen. Belgium at times becomes very narrow and while not completely conceding the flanks, Graham Zusi also should get the start in midfield for this reason.

 4)      TYAC: The risk with being aggressive, of course, is that Belgium possess some of the best counterattacking personnel in the world. We saw this when they dissected a high US backline last summer in Cleveland. Talk about how Eden Hazard and Mertens can exploit you cutting centrally and switching quickly on the break? And do you think the US will be more conservative to offset the counter?

 This will likely force Michael Bradley to cover a lot of ground, much as he has done in each of the three group games for the United States. The dynamic movement of Hazard in particular means in theory the US is more likely to lose its shape at the back more than in any prior match. But what we have found in each Group H matchup is that the center of the pitch becomes quite crowded for Belgium. Space then comes at a premium and Belgium’s midfield loses its symmetry. Large portions of the match against Algeria and Russia were characterized by this difficulty. It is almost as if Belgium have too many superstars in midfield and not enough space or spots to please them all.

5)      TYAC: Finally- so as readers aren’t taking the backline talent lightly– Vertonghen and Vermaelen, in particular, are highly technical players- even if they aren’t fullbacks. Assuming Kompany plays– that’s three very technical players the US will face. How do you think the US should address the Belgian backline?

 Belgium’s backline doesn’t make a whole lot of mistakes on the ball. Clearances are generally clean and touches pronounced and effective. Even Toby Alderweireld, the least experienced of the defenders is a high-quality player who did well this season for the Spanish Champions Atletico Madrid. Kompany is the leader of this back four though. Even though Daniel Van Buyten is hugely experienced, Kompany is the glue. If he is unavailable to play, communication and leadership might be lacking at the back. Varmaelen has leadership skills, but Belgian Manager Marc Wilmots has already made it clear that Kompany’s leadership far exceeds that of any other player he has. 

Can Jurgen find the right formula again to help the US start fast?

Can Jurgen find the right formula again to help the US start fast?

Neil W. Blackmon on What to watch for from the Yanks:

I mentioned on Twitter to Matthew Tomaszewicz at The Shin Guardian that deciding whether the United States should play aggressively or sit back deep was the hardest decision I’ve had to make in writing a preview. That’s for writing a blog. Doesn’t make me envy Klinsmann’s job.

In the end, though, three things stand out.

First, the United States must start this game fast.

That seems obvious enough, and has been hoped for in each match, at least in the sense that the US, like anyone else in the field, didn’t want to get behind early in a match. Ghana saw Clint Dempsey light the lamp in thirty seconds and a “dreamland” start in Natal, say what you will about the negativity of the US approach thereafter. Portugal saw the opposite; Geoff Cameron’s botched clearance and Nani’s finish putting the Yanks behind and, in fairness given the way proceedings went thereafter, putting the US in a position to draw at the death rather than win 2-0. Finally, the Germany match, where a “fast start” really meant “don’t concede” and hope you can probe for a goal after things settle, a proposition that by most measures was a success despite Muller’s fine strike in the second half giving the Germans a “just” lead. 

Against the Belgians, however, I think the United States should push the game from the outset. Belgium have proven themselves strong finishers at this tournament, and also have proven themselves adept at dictating the game against the United States when the Americans have to chase: see Cleveland last summer. Beyond that, there’s still fatigue issues in play. The Americans looked exhausted in the second half in Recife and Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman are the only 3 midfielders on a team still playing to have gone 90 minutes in each match. Michael Bradley’s “distance covered” is well-documented: tops in the tournament and the subject of endless “what’s the matter with him?” debate. I won’t get into that- but I will suggest the Americans need to search for a first half goal so they don’t have to chase the game. Score first, and, as the old saying goes…we’ve got ourselves a game.

Don't think he'll start. But don't rule it out.

Don’t think he’ll start. But don’t rule it out.

The “how” to find that goal circles back to the second thing that stands out about the Yanks, and it’s a universal point under Jurgen Klinsmann. 

As noted in our Germany preview, the Americans have been very pragmatic under Jurgen Klinsmann, less concerned with his “I got the job, let’s win the press conference” goal of “proactive, engaging and attacking soccer that suits US culture” and more concerned with a willed refusal to give up goals thanks to large-scale defensive breakdowns. While it’s true that the Americans have, at times, played an impressive attacking style they’ve also done two things to prevent defensive breakdowns. ‘

The first- “possession as defense”- was utilizing the ball to shore up defensive errors in the back. The second- and perhaps the most notable in this World Cup, is to play extremely narrow without possession. The US ditched the much-ballyhooed “diamond” in the last Send-Off Series match in Jacksonville and instead has played a 4-2-3-1 (Portugal)  and a 4-4-1-1 (Germany), designed to prevent the opposition playing through the middle. This was especially the case against Germany, who, like Belgium, boast multiple playmakers. The formation also makes sense because, like Belgium, Germany lacked proper fullbacks– which meant the US was comfortable with Boateng making runs down a flank. I think the US will be just as comfortable with Alderweireld or Vertonghen making those runs, should they choose to do so.

But can the US apply pressure effectively and search for an early goal if they are set up to defend first and force Belgium to beat them from width? And can they defend crosses better than they have in this tournament (an oddly under-emphasized weakeness in most media outlets despite the multiple chances they’ve surrendered from crosses deep in their final third?)

As to the first question, the US will have to hold the ball better. Against Germany, the best American moments came when either Kyle Beckerman or MB 90, or both, delivered the ball to Jermaine Jones running forward through the center. Jones could then move towards goal and shoot or distribute to a late running wide player in the channel. This resulted in a very good Graham Zusi look against Germany and, while aided by a Dempsey backheel, also was the strategy on the dashing counterattack that nearly equalized the match through Alejandro Bedoya late. The problem, against Germany, was there weren’t enough of these moments.

To amend this, I think the US would be wise to return to the 4-2-3-1 utilized vs. Portugal, with the only possible changes being either a deployment of DeAndre Yedlin in midfield ahead of Fabian Johnson, giving the US a fullback-loaded right side (with Zusi on the left) that is both a defensive support and, more critically here, an attacking ploy to stretch Belgium and take advantage of their lack of width- or– more risky because it sacrifices defensive support– a deployment of Aron Johannsson on a wing, where he can sweep in on the left side and attack Alderweireld, who is foul prone and has trouble tracking runners through the channels in help defense. 

Those are simply suggestions, however, and what I’m looking for is more likely to look something like this:

A possible (and familiar) US deployment for the Belgium match.

A possible (and familiar) US deployment for the Belgium match.

Zusi was terrific from my seat in Manaus, zinging balls to Johnson on the overlap with gusto and providing defensive cover for Johnson to play adventurous football. The first US goal came after a set piece– but before Jones rocketed his ball past Beto, the key play was down the flank winning the corner, another wing to center to fullback combination that ended when Dempsey won a corner kick. The thinking here is the US would do well to replicate that strategy, particularly down the Belgian left flank, which sees Vertonghen battling an injury concern, his cover, Vincent Kompany, battling injury concerns, and Kompany’s possible backup, Lombaerts, a converted midfielder playing the position out of emergency. This is another argument for Johannsson on a wing, rather than Yedlin– the flip side being, of course, that Yedlin gives the US defensive support for a swashbuckling Johnson that will be needed to check Hazard when Belgium counterattack.

Great against the Germans. Will Omar get the call again Tuesday?

Great against the Germans. Will Omar get the call again Tuesday?

Finally, the third thing: Belgium, despite not playing splendid, can devastate you on the counter. There are risks with any strategy, but the US should push for the goal and trust Matt Besler, Kyle Beckerman, and yes, Geoff Cameron, to clean up the mess behind.

As noted, the Americans have struggled to defend crosses this tournament. That doesn’t mean the US will abandon its “don’t beat us through the center” credo- to the contrary, they’ll just have to execute better on crosses. Belgium hardly looked a threat against both South Korea and Algeria until they were able to pump crosses in late– an issue far more pronounced, interestingly, in the Algeria game where with eleven men they created only four chances- all off crosses, in the second half. 

The US have been dinged twice on crosses in this tournament- both against Portugal- but they were nearly victimized/looked uneasy on crosses several times against Ghana, courtesy of Opare, and twice early on against Germany, courtesy of Jerome Boateng. Neither Belgium fullback are expert passers of the ball– but a reasonable cross still needs to be cleared and defended, and the US should emphasize this in the dressing room before the match.

Even more important, however, is to remember the lessons of the past. Belgium are the third world-class counterattacking team the United States have played this tournament. Save the final sequence against Portugal (only a counterattack in the very liberal “turnover and break” sense), they’ve done an admirable job not getting caught out. Pushing for an early goal, however, they must be careful not to get caught out.

It’s fascinating to me that Belgium, who scored two patented counterattacking goals against the US in Cleveland, have yet to find lightning on the break in Brazil. To ensure this doesn’t happen, the US midfielders, particularly Jones and Michael Bradley, must keep their heads on a swivel when breaking forward, and help immediately when possession is lost.

Other final thoughts:

On Bradley, even though I promised to stay away. Celso Borges is the best example still in Brazil of a player who is asked to do something wildly different for his country than he’s tasked to do for his club. Borges gives Costa Rica grit and a bulldog in the center, despite playing a far more advanced role for his Swedish club. Borges has handled it with brio– but part of this is because Pinto has given him nearly an entire World Cup cycle to figure out how. And he’s asked to do less than Michael Bradley aka MB 90 aka “Bald Eagle” is asked to do for the Yanks.

Let’s temper the Bradley criticism, whose work rate at this tournament is nothing short of remarkable and who remains the US’ second-most accurate passer in Brazil. But let’s also say that against the Belgians, who are adept at launching counters from very deep– the final third turnovers and disconnected passes need to be at a minimum Tuesday. And this includes Michael Bradley.

On Altidore, I think he can help the US in this match. But it’s too risky to start him, especially in a world where it’s distinctly possible that Belgium will start two players who might not be fit enough to go. Let Belgium make the fool’s gamble. If you make it too- you neutralize a possible substitution advantage in the heat and humidity. And substitutes are part and parcel why Belgium have looked tremendous down the stretch in matches.

On Cameron/Gonzo– Klinsmann likes to go with “recent form” and for whatever reason, seems to blame Cameron for both goals against Portugal. (Unless Cameron’s hurt and no one told us). But Gonzalez had one of his worst games in a US shirt against Belgium last summer in Cleveland. I don’t think you play that risk again.

Neckbeard for Belgium.

Neckbeard for Belgium.

Jon Levy on the Belgian Player to Watch: Eden Hazard

Even with so many world class players on this team to choose from, including possibly the very best defender on earth, I’d have to be getting cute not to select Hazard as our Belgian Player to Watch. Like Germany’s Mesut Özil, Hazard is without question his team’s creator-in-chief in the attacking third. And like Özil, Hazard has been great at times, and anonymous at others in this World Cup. But unlike Özil, who seems to be in throes of a four-year “finding himself” process at club-level, Hazard has been making the English Premier League kneel before Zod for two years running. Oh, and he’s got the comic book villain “punny” name to go with that last reference too. And while we’re running down Hazard’s esoteric intangibles, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the most infamous neck-beard since former Chicago Bears quarterback Kyle Orton. 


Neckbeard for Bears.

But sadly it’s not just the name or the bohemian beard that should strike fear into the hearts of American defenders. It’s the passing. The shot. The speed. And most of all it’s the moves, and the tendency to draw penalties with alarming frequency. And if you don’t think there’s a chance that comes into play in this match, take a second to remember that one of the Yanks’ two best attacks in the Germany match was cut out by a venomous body check from a referee.

US Player to Watch: Matt Besler

The 2012 MLS Defender of the Year is by and large doing the league proud in Brazil, but he’s got to do better, and against the best pure striker he’s seen since, well, Romelu Lukaku himself last summer. The guy’s a high speed tank that hasn’t been built yet. He’s Jozy Altidore on a mixture of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ “ooze” and whatever they’re giving ADHD kids now to make ‘em see the world in slow motion. But while Besler will have Geoff Cameron or the newly vindicated “Bromar” Gonzalez to help corral Lukaku, there’s another task that’s proving to be Matt’s alone.

Besler need to shoulder the load of distributing the ball out of the back, and his impression of early 2000’s Rio Ferdinand needs to get more convincing, especially in matches where we know we’re being out-possessed. That means Tuesday against Belgium. Besler did start to get into the groove last Thursday, at times passing around pesky German attackers in Recife. But there was a costly hesitation that we don’t see when he’s got the ball at his feet for Sporting KC. That hesitation wasn’t present during the 2013 Gold Cup either, but it did rear its head at times against the same CONCACAF opposition in World Cup Qualifying.

Dominant in Brazil, his biggest challenge comes Tuesday.

Dominant in Brazil, his biggest challenge comes Tuesday.


Now I don’t blame Matt for gripping it a little tighter in big spots , and I certainly prefer caution to hubris when it comes to center backs passing out of their own end; would never want to see a David Luiz “what are you DOING!?” run out of our boys. But this seems like a moment ripe for the kind of Jurgen Klinsmann motivational man management that we’ve all played down in the past. Yes, Klinsmann’s former assistant Jogi Löw is a better tactical coach, and that’s obviously huge, but this is the kind of ask that maybe only a guy like Jurgen Klinsmann can deliver on.

Can’t you see it? “Trust your instincts Matt! Trust your vision! You’re brilliant! Let it fly!”

Maybe a shot of confidence like that leads to crap turnovers and easy goals for the waffle dudes, or maybe it’s the catalyst that vaults the US into the World Cup’s elite eight.

Prediction: Belgium 1 – 2 USA

The Yanks take advantage of another slow Belgium start to the tune of two goals. Jozy Altidore, healthy enough to play, and on the score sheet. And yes, an entire second half of defending for their lives.

Enjoy the match, 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 follow him on Twitter @TYAC_Jon.

Jon Levy