The U.S. Men’s National Team could really use a relative break in the knockout round after facing Ghana, Portugal and Germany in the “Group of Death.”
Did they get one? Nope, not in the slightest.
They get Belgium, a squad that, while bare in footballing history, is über talented, entering its prime, and seen as a dark horse to rip the World Cup title from the hands of tournament favorites.
While the U.S. has taken punch after punch and gotten up time and time again, the Belgians present a fresh test that could pack a punch they have yet to feel in Brazil.
So how do the Stars and Stripes beat the youthful yet talented Belgians?
1) Clint Dempsey and his rearranged face must get help up front if they have any chance.
The three-time World Cup vet has a tall task ahead if the U.S.A. expects to win with him alone as an attacking threat.
A healthy Jozy Altidore could do wonders for an American attack that has a tendency to go AWOL.
Fabian Johnson (who has been wonderful) and old man DeMarcus Beasley have to press forward against the Belgian fullbacks.
Belgium plays with four center backs across their defense (just like Germany) and are not the most mobile group by any means. This is their weak point and the U.S. need to make everyone aware of that.
2) They cannot be bossed around in the midfield.
Michael Bradley needs to stop playing like a middling MLS player and emulate the player that made him a sought-after target at Arsenal and throughout Europe. He has not been effective in an attacking position or the midfield, especially when compared to Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman, his compatriots in the midfield.
The performances and hair of the duo has made up for Bradley’s lack of either through the group stage. This must change in the knockout round to move the U.S. through to a (probable) date with destiny against Lionel Messi and Argentina.
3) The magic of Jürgen Klinsmann needs to continue.
The German boss of the Americans made all of the right moves, no matter the time or place throughout the group stage. Subbing in DeAndre Yedlin during the latter stages of the Portugal match and allowing Johnson to attack exclusively was brilliant. Ditto his move to start Omar Gonzalez vs. Germany. The LA Galaxy center back played mistake-free and saved his team’s ass on multiple occasions against one of the tournament favorites.
A key sub or two can change everything, as Ghana found out the hard way (John Brooks!).
All in all, the U.S. has a lot on its plate Tuesday afternoon in Salvador. The Americans are simply not as talented as the Belgians. Not at all. The U.S. has no one on par with Eden Hazard. Or Vincent Kompany. Or Romelu Lukaku. Or…you get the point.
Even the one edge the U.S. has on most teams with Tim Howard in goal is negated with Belgium fielding Thibault Courtois, one of the top five goalkeepers in the world.
Could the U.S. do what Mexico failed to do and earn a spot in the quarterfinals? Surely.
It all depends on how they react after they get punched in the mouth initially. It’s an inevitability vs. this attacking Belgian side and that will answer a lot of questions.
If the group stage is any indication, fans of the Stars and Stripes should be cautiously optimistic.
After all, this is the World Cup. Anything can happen.