In many ways, it’s a classic matchup: A team with real belief whose sum is greater than its individual parts, against a sleeker, more fancied, more talented bunch who has a sum that is frustratingly less than its individual pieces.
Perhaps that’s why the United States and Belgium – on paper, just as it was last summer on a muggy night in Cleveland, a blowout – has become too close to call.
While the US have impressed with their spirit and certain moments of individual brilliance in escaping the Group of Death, Belgium have befuddled on their shaky path to three first round wins.
In June 2013 when Marc Wilmots’ team beat Jurgen Klinsmann’s 4-2, Belgium was the World Cup dark horse – fifth favorites behind the big four of Brazil, Spain, Argentina and Germany to win the whole thing.
But Belgium, despite taking those nine points from their first three games, only led for 24 minutes of group play.
Without Christian Benteke, Romelu Lukaku has toiled and become frustrated, while brilliant young talents like Eden Hazard and Jean Vertonghen haven’t meshed; so much so that it’s the old guard – Daniel Van Buyten – and the unfancied guard – Divock Origi – have carried the team.
With each passing game – a comeback win against plucky Algeria, a last-gasp winner against Russia, and a mentally slow performance against flimsy South Korea – the question has become less when Belgium will click, and turned to will Belgium click at all?
Certainly, Wilmots is feeling the heat. Increasingly feisty with the media, the former captain also has injury concerns. Center-back and leader Vincent Kompany has missed training and questionable to play, while Thomas Vermaelan also might miss out.
If Belgium bows out here, Wilmots is most likely out of a job, and the Red Devils will have had one of the most disappointing tournaments of any nation in Brazil.
For Jurgen Klinsmann’s troops, it’s optimism abound. Before the tournament, Klinsmann was reaffirming his disconcerting statement that the US couldn’t win the World Cup.
Now, he’s told his team to book their return flights from Brazil for the day after the final.
The American’s achievement is huge. Their opportunity, in a wide-open World Cup where no one is playing great – looms larger. Here are key matchups to watch.
Belgium fullbacks v. American fullbacks – It’s the most underplayed, underrated position in soccer, but fullbacks can be key indeed. Belgium know this all too well.
Despite having the second most valuable squad in the tournament behind Brazil, Belgium don’t have any starting quality fullbacks, None. Zero. At least Germany have one – even if Joachim Low insists on playing him in midfield.
Belgium has settled on lining up center-backs Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld on the outside. Unfortunately, the US isn’t necessarily set up to exploit Belgium’s lack of pace and know-how out wide.
With no out and out wingers, the Americans will have to rely on two wingers converted into fullbacks in DeMarcus Beasley and Fabian Johnson to get down the flanks.
Johnson’s attacking impact is well documented. If he can get forward, the US is an exponentially more threatening team. Johnson is one of the US’ four most talented attacking players on the field.
When he gets forward like in the Portugal match, the offense has an added dimension and looks immensely promising. When he doesn’t – Ghana, Germany – not only can’t the US maintain possession, they don’t have many options when they do get the ball.
Beasley’s attacking prowess is overlooked, but it looms. Looking to exploit the German setup, Beasley went on a few terrific runs in Recife, but had little support from his teammates. Beasley is a former attacking wide player who can still run like hell. It shouldn’t just be Johnson getting forward on Tuesday.
Axel Witsel v. Jermaine Jones – Witsel, of Zenit St. Petersburg in Russia, is one of the only Belgian players who has shown up. A two-way midfield dynamo, Witsel has the capacity to give the US fits.
Jermaine Jones is the American answer; a player who mirrors Witsel is many ways. Jones, finally released into what is something of a dream free role with the capacity to join the attack with gusto, is playing terrific soccer. Against Germany, he showed more eagerness to get into the attack, something that will be important for the US if Michael Bradley again can’t find his feet.
Witsel will sit just behind the Belgian front five, while Jones will have the ability to move between Kyle Beckerman’s position at the base of midfield, and Bradley’s spot just behind Clint Dempsey. Whichever player has a better game may very well be playing on in the tournament.
Romelu Lukaku v. US centerbacks – Lukaku – never the favorite son for Belgium – was thrust into a starting role when Benteke tore his ACL playing for Aston Villa in the spring.
After a hapless outing against Algeria, he was subbed early against Russia and benched against South Korea. You have to assume Wilmots will go back to him here, if only because the talent drop-off seems too severe for a game of this magnitude.
The question for the US then becomes who to pair with Matt Besler. Omar Gonzalez was used against Germany because of his size and physical attributes, while Geoff Cameron is still the more technical player. While Gonzalez’s inclusion in the last game was matchup based, it may be prudent to ride his hot hand and put him next to the assured Besler here.
Jozy Altidore v. His Hamstring – When Altidore crumpled to the grass at the Estadio Das Dunas against Ghana, it seemed like his 2014 was over. And yet, just two weeks later, US Soccer triumphantly tweeted that he’d be available for selection against Belgium.
It’s been a remarkably fast recovery for Altidore, who first started jogging just a handful of days ago. Let’s not get carried away: There’s no way Altidore starts here, and he maybe, just maybe, might come off the bench – but only if the US is chasing a goal.
Otherwise, Alitdore will be firmly ensconced in between Julian Green and Nick Rimando.
If the US does get to a quarterfinal, they’ll want Altidore there. Plus, a bad hamstring is one of the toughest injuries to play on. If Altidore features at all, you have to wonder how effective he’d be.
Marc Wilmots v. Jurgen Klinsmann – This game presents a real opportunity for Klinsmann to outcoach his opponent.
Wilmots – just a few years removed from his playing days and in his first coaching job since resigning from the Belgian Senate – doesn’t have the tactical nous of his counterpart.
Belgium play a sort of 4-1-4-1, but it’s more a do-it-yourself, rotating, front-heavy look that can’t be defined in any one way. Will Wilmots juggle his squad and get it right? Belgium are slightly cranky and temperamental after not hitting the heights everyone thinks they should.
Klinsmann has his own decisions – how to handle Altidore, who to play at center-back, and who to play in the wide spot opposite Graham Zusi (if only Landon Donovan was on this team) – and if he gets them right, the US might just pull this thing off.
It’s going to be a good game. There hasn’t been a clunker in the Round of 16 yet, or even really the tournament as a whole.
At some point, it will end in heartbreak for the USA and there burgeoning fan-base. The tears might flow tonight – or who knows? Maybe the US will just go on and win the whole thing.