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U.S.—Belgium Preview: Yanks Face Tough Task

A depleted United States men's soccer team will host a lethal Belgium squad Wednesday night in Cleveland. Here's a preview of the contest, which could get ugly if the Yanks fail to play at top level.
BY Sam Mintz Posted
May 28, 2013
3:09 PM
With five matches scheduled over the next three weeks, the United States men’s soccer team will focus most of its attention on the three winnable World Cup qualifiers it faces next month—against Jamaica, Panama, and Honduras.

The June 2 friendly against No. 2-ranked Germany, a team that U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann played for and coached, has so many subplots and so much intrigue that it will generate its own gravitational pull.

But the trickiest match of all just might be Wednesday’s exhibition against Belgium (8 p.m. Eastern, ESPN 2, UniMas). The deeply talented and perpetually underachieving Belgians will bring a strong, feisty team to Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium, and the U.S. will have its hands full for the entire 90 minutes.

Belgium manager Marc Wilmots has lost just two of his eleven games since taking over in 2012, and if the roster list is any indication, Wilmots wants to make a statement Wednesday night. Here’s the roster:

GOALKEEPERS—Koen Casteels (TSG Hoffenheim), Thibaut Courtois (Atletico de Madrid), Jean-François Gillet (FC Torino), Simon Mignolet (Sunderland AFC)
DEFENDERS—Toby Alderweireld (Ajax Amsterdam), Laurent Ciman (R. Standard CL), Guillaume Gillet (RSC Anderlecht), Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), Nicolas Lombaerts (Zenit St-Petersburg), Sébastien Pocognoli (Hannover), Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal FC), Daniel Van Buyten (Bayern München), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham)
MIDFIELDERS—Nacer Chadli (FC Twente), Steven Defour (FC Porto), Moussa Dembélé (Tottenham), Marouane Fellaini (Everton FC), Thorgan Hazard (SV Zulte-Waregem), Timmy Simons (FC Nürnberg), Axel Witsel (Zenit St-Petersburg)
FORWARDS—Christian Benteke (Aston Villa FC), Kevin De Bruyne (Werder Bremen), Maxime Lestienne (Club Brugge KV), Romelu Lukaku (West Bromwich Albion), Dries Mertens (PSV Eindhoven), Kevin Mirallas (Everton FC), Jelle Vossen (KRC Genk)

Despite the undeniable talent on this roster and a good run of form, Belgium is particularly dangerous because it has so much to prove. It has failed to qualify for the last three European Championships and the last two World Cups, and has only won one major tournament—the 1920 Olympics. Eighty-three years removed from its last major achievement, the feeling in and around the club is that this team has what it takes to not only qualify for the 2014 World Cup but also make a deep run in Brazil.

“Yes, we have hope, but we have to win something first,” Marouane Fellaini told Esquire magazine.

Eden Hazard, who will miss Wednesday’s match, echoed the midfielder’s sentiment. “We have a chance along with others,” he said, speaking about the 2014 World Cup. “But first we need to get there.”

Wednesday’s match against the United States will give the Belgians an opportunity to show that it can dominate a clearly inferior opponent.

Belgium’s first-choice goalkeeper and likely starter, Thibaut Courtois, earned this season's Zamora Trophy, given to the La Liga keeper with the best goals-to-games ratio. The 21-year-old Atletico Madrid netminder led his team to a third-place finish and will give the American strike force plenty to think about. As the video below shows, Courtois is agile and acrobatic, and is fully capable of making ridiculous double and triple saves.

As strong as Courtois is, the backline in front of him may be even better. In addition to Vincent Kompany, the reliable Manchester City captain and the heart of the Belgian defense, Jan Vertonghen will be one to look out for. The crafty defender, who plays either on the left or in the center, might be a nightmare matchup for whomever Klinsmann plays on the right side of the U.S. attack.

Another subplot: Center back Thomas Vermaelen will have extra incentive heading into this match, seeing as he lost his starting place at Arsenal to Laurent Koscielny toward the end of this past season. The Verminator will want to prove that he is still a world-class player, and that endeavor begins in Cleveland.

The Belgian midfield is equally intimidating, both in terms of skill and physicality. Left-footed wizard Moussa Dembele can carve up the best defenses with apparent ease, and the American midfield will not be at full strength. With Michael Bradley missing the game due to his recent Coppa Italia efforts, Landon Donovan still not back on Klinsmann’s list, Maurice Edu injured, and Stuart Holden still playing catch up, the U.S. midfield will is at risk of being overrun by the likes of Dembele, Axel Witsel, and Steven Defour—skilled players who have experience at a high level of play.

One matchup that is certainly worth watching: Marouane Fellaini versus Jermaine Jones. Both are pugnacious and tenacious defensive midfielders, and if one dominates the other, it could go a long way toward determining the outcome of the contest.

Up top, the talent keeps coming: The Chelsea-centric attack force (Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne are both loanees from the London club) pose serious challenges to any back four—especially the fast and powerful Lukaku. The 20-year-old scored 17 goals in 35 games as he helped West Bromwich Albion to a surprising eighth-place finish in the English Premier League. As seen in the video below, Lukaku is very much a pure center-forward who specializes in hold up play, muscling away defenders to win headers, and powering shots into the roof of the net. He also has a silky touch for a striker of his size.

How will a young, relatively inexperienced U.S. defense handle the various threats Belgium will send forward? Klinsmann has expressed confidence in his next-gen defenders.

“I think Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler did an amazing job, especially with the game they played in Estadio Azteca in our tie in Mexico, and also with their club teams," Jurgen Klinsmann said. "Geoff Cameron has established himself as a starter at Stoke City in his first year there and has been doing really well.”

American veterans Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo were both left off the American roster and appear to be on the outside looking in, while youngsters Geoff Cameron, Omar Gonzalez, and Matt Besler could reprise the roles they played in the U.S's most recent World Cup qualifier. (Although ASN contributor Brian Sciaretta recently tweeted that Cameron is practicing in central defense, not at fullback.) Wherever—or whether—Cameron plays, stopping the Belgian would be a confidence-boosting accomplishment for the Yanks.

That said, if Belgium dominates the midfield against a depleted U.S. squad and gets out to an early lead, things could get ugly.

What do you expect to see happen in Cleveland? Close match? Blowout? Share your prediction below.

Sam Mintz is a Boston-area football fanatic and freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter.

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