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Unified Yanks Will Face Beatable, Beat Up Belgians

Ahead of Tuesday's round of 16 match with Belgium, the United States men's soccer team spoke as if one, conveying respect for a talented Belgium side, and confidence that it could win.

BY John Godfrey Posted
June 29, 2014
10:22 AM
SAO PAOLO—The first time a Jurgen Klinsmann-led U.S. national team faced Belgium, in Brussels in September 2011, the Americans started strong but eventually succumbed to a better organized, more talented team.

A year-and-a-half later, in Cleveland, an aggressive Belgium squad thoroughly dominated the Yanks, taking advantage of some lackluster defending to win 4-2.

The two teams had planned a third clash, a closed-door scrimmage just prior to the beginning of the 2014 World Cup, but traffic concerns in this massive, messy city in southern Brazil forced the teams to cancel.

On Tuesday, however, it is game on.

This iteration of the U.S. national team will get its third shot at beating the Belgiums in Salvador, Brazil (4 p.m. ET, ESPN). And despite those past two defeats, there is a undeniable feeling of confidence emanating throughout the entire squad.

"We have absolutely no fear at all," said Klinsmann, quite possibly the most self-assured man in the southern hemisphere. "We feel like we are in a position now to challenge [them]. We believe we have built a foundation in our team that we are able to beat them."

Past history, scrimmage, no scrimmage—Klinsmann said none of it matters now.

“In those circumstances where the traffic was so bad in Sao Paulo it would’ve taken them more than two-and-a-half hours to get to the training ground here," he said at the FC Sao Paolo training center. "I think either way it doesn’t matter.

"I mean we know their team. We played them twice in the last three years. We are very familiar with this very strong team. It’s one of kind of the secret favorites in this World Cup because of the players, individual players, that they have. But now comes a lot of other elements to it. Meaning total focus, peak at the right time now, call everything you have in yourself and be ready for 120 minutes plus penalty shootout.

"We’re looking forward to it.”

It's fair to say that four years ago the U.S. would have been a massive underdog against a talent-laden squad like Belgium—in part because the team is filled with so many big talents who play for big clubs. Marouane Fellaini patrols the central midfield for Manchester United. Defender Vincent Kompany captains Manchester City. Eden Hazard, a Chelsea attacker, is considered one of the rising stars in all of Europe.

Tim Howard, who plays for Everton in the English Premier League, is a one-man scouting report on the Belgians:

  • On former Everton teammate Romelu Lukaku: “He was fantastic. He was strong. He was powerful. He led the line well. You know, for us, we really liked having Rom around because he came from a big, big club with a lot of expectations. The second he came into the dressing room, he was willing to bleed for the shirt and the guys respected him for that. He’s a young kid and he’s always wanting to learn and get better and that was a big plus for us."

  • On Hazard: “He’s one of probably 100 players who have scored against me. Welcome to the club. Hazard, I think he’s probably one of the best players in the Premier League. He’s shifty. He’s crafty. He’s everything you want in a winner.”

  • On Thibaut Courtois: “Arguably he’s making a case for being [one of] the top three goalkeepers in the world, and he’s so young. I enjoy watching him play. I think he’s been exciting. I love watching good, top goalkeepers.”

  • On Kompany: “He’s known as one of the better captains and leaders and he seems to will that team on at times. He’s what you want from a captain: he’s always out there, he’s always leading the troops. Sometimes he has to lead by example and, as a defender, that’s hard, but he finds a way to do it. Hard tackling, stepping in and winning goals, driving the team forward. He’s fantastic.”
  • The knock on Belgium is that it is a team full of individual talents that sometimes plays at a level below the sum of its parts. It won all three of its group stage contests, but did not play particularly well in any of them.

    That, and many players are nursing knocks—especially defenders.

    Right back Anthony Vanden Borre has a broken fibula and will miss the rest of the tournament. Kompany (groin) was held out of recent training sessions and may not play Tuesday. Starting left back Thomas Vermaelan (thigh) is also in doubt. Even backup center back Laurent Ciman is a question mark.

    Physical ailments aren't the only issue confronting Belgium. Lukaku, 21, a budding star at Chelsea, was benched in the team's group stage match against Korea, and he wasn't happy about it.

    Due to injuries, dissension, and a very young squad without any prior World Cup experience, Belgium seems, in a word, beatable. Recognizing the concerns within his team, Belgian coach Marc Wilmotts calls the match with the U.S, a "50-50 game."

    American players didn't offer any numerical evaluations, but they did provide quotes that conveyed respect, confidence, and the sense that they were all on the exact same page.

    "They're obviously a top team and we'll need to be at our best," U.S. captain Clint Dempsey said in Recife, Brazil, just after the U.S. learned it had advanced. "But at the same time, what's beautiful about the knockout stages is that you've got to bring it on that day. It doesn't matter what you've done in the tournament [prior to that match]. You've got to make sure you can bring it, and if we do I think we can do well."

    "All around the field they are very talented, from the back to the front, to the wide mids, they have a lot of talent and they can hurt you in many different ways," Omar Gonzalez said in Sao Paolo one day later. "They have big strikers that can hold onto the ball and good pace."

    "They’re super talented," Tim Howard said. "Those guys, whether they have World Cup experience or not, a lot of their team plays at really big clubs in Europe and when you’re playing in the Champions League, there’s almost nothing like it outside of the World Cup. So they've got a ton of experience."

    "As a team we feel like we have a good understanding of what they are all about and the way they play and what kind of makes them go," Michael Bradley chimed in. "We’ll use these few days to talk, to watch a little bit and be ready to step on the field against a very good team.”

    If all of the above words sound as though they could have come out of Klinsmann's mouth, well, that is very much the identity of this United States national team. The coach is a micromanager, especially in terms of dealing with the press, and there's a reason that the U.S. Soccer Federation adopted the #OneNationOneTeam slogan/hashtag.

    The mantra: Respect your opponents. Stick together. Follow the script. And, most of all, believe in yourself.

    "We had the opportunity to play them twice in the last three years, both times they came out as the winning team," Klinsmann said. "But, we also believe that we have enough confidence now going into this game, a very special one, a knockout game, to say we are able to beat them."

    WIll the United States use its experience and unity to beat the Belgians? Will the more talented team prevail? Share your thoughts below.

    John Godfrey is the founder and editor in chief of American Soccer Now.

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