Despite escaping from the Group of Death, the United States may be facing its toughest test yet in a win-or-go-home match against Belgium. No longer can the Yanks hope to be good enough, but with Belgium and probably Argentina standing in their way of advancing, the entire roster needs to play at its best. Michael Bradley is the obvious place where massive improvement is needed, but the U.S. can obviously see a possible upgrade with the return of Jozy Altidore.
The forward has missed the majority of the group stage with a hamstring injury. However, he is training again and Jurgen Klinsmann is optimistic that Altidore will be fit to play on Tuesday. On the face of it, this is a huge break for the U.S, However the coach should resist temptation and leave Altidore on the bench against Belgium.
One area where Klinsmann has shown vast improvement as a coach in this tournament is with his substitutions. Against Ghana, bringing on Graham Zusi and John Brooks were critical to the winning goal. DeAndre Yedlin was a terror against Portugal and introduced critical speed. At this stage, being able to bring on the right people at the right time is critical to advancing. The Netherlands almost got burned against Algeria with an early substitution when Nigel de Jong came off with a groin injury.
Think back to the Ghana match, when Altidore was originally hurt. The early substitution of Aron Johannsson forced Klinsmann’s hand to play a forward because of the amount of time remaining and the possible need to score an additional goal. If Altidore is not entirely healthy and suddenly pulls up lame in the first half, then the United States will be using an early sub and be tactically short-handed later in the match.
Additionally, going with a five midfielder formation may be advantageous for the U.S. Matt Jones makes an excellent point in his article that the midfield will be key to a U.S. victory, especially Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman. Thus having Bradley up top with Zusi and Bedoya, or some other combination, gives the U.S. a good chance to press some Belgium disadvantages. If this formation does not work or the U.S. needs a spark, Altidore can come on as an impact substitute if a hold-up forward or some pace is needed.
The temptation is great to go into this match with an optimal starting XI. However, in this case it is the better alternative to go forward with a 4-2-3-1 and bring an only somewhat healthy Altidore off the bench if needed.