In the Group Stages of the World Cup, there were three teams that gave up only a single goal to their opponents. One of those teams was Belgium.
So to think about the Americans’ play thus far heading into this game, one has to be concerned. Yes, they were able to get two goals each against Ghana and Portugal, but against their toughest opponent Germany, they looked punchless on the counter. On Monday, the Algerians showed what a razor-sharp counter game can do to a possession team like the Germans, making American fans wonder why their guys were ineffective in the final Group G match.
The easy talking point heading into Belgium vs. US is whether the Americans can reconnect the dots they failed to link up against Germany.
First of all, against Germany the goal was to simply limit Die Mannschaft’s goal scoring, essentially using Portugal’s ugly goal difference against them. One could follow that Jurgen Klinsmann had little desire in pushing forward and causing holes to form in the defense.
On paper, Belgium is a side of great quality, with many top European players but whether it’s the inherent divisions of an often divided country, or the inherent divisions caused by ego, Belgium has looked more like Portugal than Germany in this World Cup. They’ve dominated their often weak opponents in possession, but are often unable to make their final third count.
That brings us to the US counterattack. If Belgium is going to dominate possession, the US must expose a Belgian defense that may be missing Thomas Vermaelen and Vincent Kompany through speed and surprise. Here are a few ways I could see doing this:
1) Use Deandre Yedlin at right midfield - The young Seattle player is clearly not ready for primetime at right back. But when you put him in the midfield, you minimize his chances at getting gutted on a run into the box. You also can ask him to sit deeper, and use a player like Michael Bradley or Jermaine Jones to feed him into space. If he can get behind Jan Vertonghen, a center back deputized on the left, it may create some real difficulties for a Belgian back line.
2) Use Aron Johannsson up top - this may be a match where Johannsson’s wise diagonal runs and speed can be of effect. If Belgium decides to play the high line, the AZ Alkmaar forward may be the type of guy who runs onto a through ball from Bradley. While Clint Dempsey has a nose for goal, he can function in that capacity cutting in from the left.
3) Trust Bradley to get the job done - This tournament has been the “Bag On Michael Bradley Carnivale.” Yes, he’s frustrated everyone rooting for the Red, White, and Blue. But he’s still a guy who, on his best days, is the US’s most pivotal player. He does it all in those moments. It would be easy to think it’s time to move Bradley back into a deeper role and push out Kyle Beckerman for Mixx Diskerud (and that might work), but when you’ve bluffed your hand this long, it’s time to keep going.
With this matchup, the US has a chance to go all “Bob Bradley” on Belgium and succeed. A sharp counter thrust could mean the difference between the Quarterfinals and a trip back home.