WASHINGTON, June 29, 2014 — The United States soccer team escaped from the so-called “Group of Death” to make it to the World Cup knockout round and now face a talented Belgium team on Tuesday in Salvador, Brazil.
It’s do-or-die for the red, white and blue. So what must Jurgen Klinsmann’s team plan be in order to deal with their talented European rivals?
Coming into the World Cup, Belgium was considered by many pundits as an outside favorite to win the event, based on the fact that the team is loaded with young talent – a new golden generation of players reminding folks of when the Belgium reached the semis in 1986. Most of its players all compete in the top leagues in Europe, and its star midfielder, Eden Hazard, is considered world class. Yet while Belgium won all its group games in a relatively easy group with Algeria, Russia and Korea, it wasn’t quite an A-class performance. So there is hope for the Americans, who are on a high after making it against all odds to the last 16.
There are three things the U.S. team must do to beat Belgium. First, the Americans cannot just park the bus and bunker in as they did for much of the game against Ghana and Germany. Belgium coach Marc Wilmots says he expects a physical game from the Americans and that his team is “preparing for war.” The U.S. must surprise Belgium with counter-attacking soccer and put the Belgium defense on its heels. If Wilmots wants a war the U.S. is ready. They maybe wounded – Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones both have fractured noses – but they can certainly play a physical game if needed, and they might have to if Belgium takes control of the game. Yes, the Americans will be on the defensive, but they cannot just sit back. They must attack wisely.
Second, the U.S. needs to earn possession of the ball. This is going to be tricky for the U.S., but the team must try and hold onto the ball especially when it is cleared out from the back. Belgium has the players with the nifty footwork who can keep the ball, but the U.S. must not allow Belgium to control all the possession and score an early goal. This is a dangerous team, and the American midfield must disrupt and hassle their opponents continually. When the U.S. gets the ball, it must break quickly, because the chances will be far and few. It only takes one goal, or even a scoreless tie and then via penalty kicks, to get through. The U.S. needs to play a wise game. Absorb the Belgium attack, break quickly, and hold the ball up until reinforcements arrive, and then strike at goal.
Finally, the U.S. needs to contain Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bryne. Hazard, who plays for Chelsea, is arguably one of the best players in the world. The U.S. has the players to contain him, but he will be a handful with his talented dribbling skills and his tight play in close quarters. The young De Bryne is also a great player, who is fast on the wing and can deliver an excellent ball to Belgium’s big target men such as Marouane Fellaini, Jan Vertonghen, Vincet Kompany and Romelu Lukaku. If Harzard is allowed to control the game, the U.S. will be in trouble. The attacking midfielder has had a quiet World Cup so far and the U.S. best keep it that way.
John Haydon wrote a weekly soccer column for The Washington Times for 20 years. He has covered two World Cups and written about Major League Soccer from the league’s inception in 1996. Follow John on Twitter at @JohnAHaydon