The USA received some good news on Monday, as forward Jozy Altidore has been cleared to play against Belgium in the round-of-16 game on Tuesday.
The question is how much will Altidore play, if he plays at all?
USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann faces a tough decision on how to work Altidore back into the lineup. Does he start him and risk having to use an early substitute if Altidore can’t go? Does he bring Altidore off the bench if things are not going well? Or does he save him, not wanting to risk further injury, knowing that there may not be a next game without Altidore?
“Jozy is available and this is what we hoped for,” is all that Klinsmann would say on Monday. “Just having him with us is huge. How many minutes can he play? We’ll see that during the game.”
The U.S. might need Altidore, even if he is limited, to get past a Belgium team that is 11th in the world rankings, won all three of their group stage games, and have not lost in their last 13 matches overall (11 wins and two draws). The U.S. looked a bit gassed against Germany (Clint Dempsey, especially) and having another option on offense can only help. Besides Altidore’s pace and physicality has been sorely lacking from the U.S, attack since he was injured against Ghana.
“Belgium is a country that doesn’t have the history of Germany or Italy or some of these countries, but when you look over the past few years, when you look at the quality of their players, it certainly has to be talked about as one of the best teams in Europe,” midfielder Michael Bradley said.
The U.S. could be catching a break, as Belgium will be without midfielder Steven Defour and left back Thomas Vermaelen, and may have to play without defender Vincent Kompany the team captain, who is battling a groin injury.
Belgium is a physical team that grinds it out, dominates possession and waits to pounce on a mistake (while trying to avoid making one of their own). If the U.S. falls behind early, they could be in serious trouble.
That style of play leaves Belgium susceptible to counter-attacks, though, so there may be opportunities for the U.S. to push the issue on offense if they can get possession of the ball. In other words, they look like a good opponent for a healthy Altidore and a rested Dempsey.
“Jozy’s a great striker, especially when he’s up there with Clint [Dempsey],” defender Omar Gonzalez said. “Both can create chances, and with Jozy going out early, it’s been a lot of work for Clint. He’s done a great job up there. Hopefully we can see Jozy come back pretty soon, and if that’s the case, it’s going to be a tough task for the defenders that have to mark them.”
The USA faces a tough task against Belgium, but with the success that CONCACAF teams have shown in this World Cup – Mexico had the Netherlands beat until losing the plot at the very end, and Costa Rica has already advanced – there is no reason for the Americans to feel like they don’t belong on the same pitch. Klinsmann said,
“We have no fear at all, We’re ready to go eye to eye with a very good team … ready for a real grind. Anything’s possible. Sky’s the limit, but we have to get over some hurdles and this is a very big hurdle, no doubt about it. We believe we have built the foundation to beat them, but every player needs to be willing to go 120 minutes, plus a penalty shootout if they have to.”
Given Belgium’s defensive tactics and shape in midfield, Altidore could be the difference between winning and losing for the United States. Matches at this stage often come down to fine margins. The lack of attacking quality from the U.S. was evident against Germany. Altidore’s return gives the United States the ability to have a go at Belgium even if it is late on.