Coming off a loss to Costa Rica, the US Men’s National Team is jump-kicking its way across the Atlantic, all the way to the home of Jean-Claude Van Damme and waffles with oversized syrup traps. Before we get to our official TYAC preview, here’s a primer in case you missed the last episode.
Last time on USMNT: Coming off an entertaining one-one draw with their nemesis, Mexico, the Yanks hosted Costa Rica in new manager Jurgen Klinsmann’s second match in charge. The match was largely even, with the US showing flashes of good movement to work the ball up the field. Just as the contest was growing painfully stale (bravo to both sets of defenders and holding mids), Costa Rica forced a world class save out of American hero/goalkeeper Tim Howard, and the Ticos converted the rebound. For the rest of the match the Americans displayed the desire to score the equalizer, and no player played particularly poorly, but sadly the Yanks fell well short of Ajax ’71 going forward, and lost one-nil.
Now they’ll take their work-in-progress on the road and try to score Jurgen his first win for America on European soil.
What to watch for from the Yanks:
Sometimes a one-nothing loss isn’t so bad. This is one of those times.
But don’t get it twisted, the Costa Rica match wasn’t a carbon copy of the one-nil loss to Paraguay in March, a match in which the eventual Copa America finalists were very lucky to get a goal, and the Yanks were just as unlucky not to find one. Matches like that spark one of my favorite clichéd debates, the need for the provider of “the final ball,” or the right player to “get on the end of it.” These debates come into play every season in the FA Cup, when inevitably a Premier League team dominates the run of play against a lower division club, but despite buzzing in and around the opposition box, cannot find the goal they need. That was the Paraguay friendly; the Costa Rica match was an even less encouraging proposition.
The Yanks played mostly even, and probably got the better of the attacking play, but they were perpetually still a movement or two away from being able to reasonably consider playing a killer “final ball.” To say Klinsmann’s squad failed to build on the attacking success of the last twenty minutes against Mexico would be accurate, if not an understatement.
That being said, the Yanks did looks promising in possession on Friday night, even if they rarely created actual scoring chances. Both José Francisco Torres and Sacha Kljestan looked good in distribution, and adding one more dangerous attacking runner/passing outlet to this mix might just make a big difference. I wonder who they can bring in; that would be a guy to watch in this match for sure…
US Player to Watch: Clint Dempsey
This one was a pretty simple call. Game three of the Klinsmann era, and the team’s best field player hasn’t stepped onto the field yet. Moreover, the team’s best field player is an extremely versatile attacker, who can play as a winger, an attacking midfielder, and a forward. It’s not like we’re dealing with a Brian McBride type, where there’s no doubt about how he’ll be deployed. Jurgen’s been playing chess without his queen for two matches, and it’s high time he sees what the old girl can do.
I expect Deuce to play more than one position in Brussels, and I expect him to be a difference maker. But just as Jurgen Klinsmann is not the cure-all for everything that ails the national team, Dempsey’s absence was not the reason the Yanks have been playing even soccer for the last 180 minutes rather than winning four-nil in each match. The combination of number eight on the field and a charismatic German on the sideline will not make the players on opposing teams fall down, but hopefully we’ll see a comfort level from Clint with what Jurgen asks him to do.
And what will we see out of Belgium?
It appears Belgium’s national team may have completed the life-cycle of “relative unknowns” to “generally overrated” in three years flat. Way back in the summer of ’08, when the American Olympic soccer team’s sudden collapse became the impetus for the creation of this blog, Belgium was enjoying a youthful renaissance that propelled them into the semifinal in Beijing. That U-23 squad featured Vincent Kompany before he was the big stick on the Iron Sheik’s payroll, Marouane Fellaini before he brought his follicular talents to Merseyside, along with more soon-to-be-stars like Thomas Vermaelen and Jan Vertonghen.
Back then, Belgium’s Olympic team appeared to be much more than the sum of its parts. And in the months that followed the fourth place finish Belgian players gained notoriety, while the full national team itself flourished briefly. Flash forward to present day, and as Grant Wahl tweeted on Friday, Belgium’s current squad has the name-brand recognition on the roster, but appears to be pulling an Argentina/England, and playing worse as a unit than each player does at his club team. They’re best players just drew Azerbaijan in Euro qualifying, and they look like missing out on next summer’s tournament.
It’s for all these reasons, that Belgium will prove a stern test for Klinsmann’s Yanks on Tuesday. The Red Devils are playing at home and coming off an unacceptable result, one that puts them behind the eight ball for the rest of Euro qualifying. This is the moment where manager George Leekens would probably like to take a page out of every high school coach’s playbook and make the boys practice ‘til they puke, but instead, he’ll have the Yanks and a dissatisfied home crowd to reckon with. It’s not exactly a trial by fire for the squad, because in the end it’s still an exhibition, but Leekens should be looking for a statement game. Something to instill confidence in the players, restore the fire, appease the fans, and hang their hats on going forward.
We shouldn’t be looking at the same first team group that drew Azerbaijan, but I fully expect most of the team’s important players to see time. I expect some combination of Kompany, Fellaini, Alex Witsel, Eden Hazard, and new Chelsea man Romelu Lukaku to start on Tuesday.
Belgium Player to Watch: Romelu Lukaku
If you weren’t already following this teenager’s progress a year ago (and I wasn’t), you may have caught a glimpse of his game changing ability while watching Anderlecht matches last season in an attempt to keep tabs on Sacha Kljestan in his first season abroad (I did). Lukaku is an eighteen year old kid, long on physical ability, and with a keen sense of how to apply it on the pitch. There’s a reason Dider Drogba is his hero, and as the Jupiler League found out, Romelu’s already taken lessons from the giant Ivorian’s game tapes. Now he’s plying his trade in West London with the Blues, and there’s no telling how good Lukaku can be under his hero’s direct tutelage. Roman Abramovitch may be in the process of creating a monster.
Belgium has plenty of playmaking midfielders that can provide the 6’3’’forward with the service he needs, but Romelu regularly tracks back anyway and gets involved in the buildup. That’s something his new club may try to limit, but it was a big part of his role at Anderlecht, and I’m guessing it’s a treat for Belgian’s midfielders like Hazard and Witsel as they look for outlets.
Lukaku is by no means a finished product, but he might be enough to singlehandedly end Michael Orozco Fiscal’s national team career for a second time if the new USMNT center half doesn’t play his absolute best. I’d actually look for Klinsmann to start the more physical pairing of Boca and Goodson in this match to try and jail Lukaku for ninety minutes. Good luck to whoever draws that task.
Prediction: Belgium 2 – 2 USA
I think both teams come out with something to prove and play better soccer than they’ve played in their last couple matches. Sadly, something’s got to give in that scenario, and I think that something is the defense. Here’s hoping I’m proven wrong, and that Jurgen’s backline remains as tough to crack as it was for most of the match on Friday night.
Enjoy the match, and Go USA!
Jon Levy is Co-Founder and Associate Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon.