The United States Men’s Nation Team (USMNT) must do five things well in order to defeat Belgium in the knockout stages of the FIFA World Cup. It is the first time the United States has reached consecutive knockout stages of the tournament. Belgium are favored in the match as they have been pinned the dark horse favorites of many in the tournament, alongside South American darling’s Colombia.
The first thing the USMNT must do is to start the game well on Tuesday. Belgium has been slow out of the gates in all three of their group stage games, failing to score in the first half so far in the FIFA World Cup. The Belgians and the Costa Ricans were also the only teams in the group stages of the tournament not to let in a goal from open play, meaning it will be very difficult to break down the Red Devil’s defense. Early on the Belgian’s may be vulnerable especially if they are without their leader Vincent Kompany due to injury.
The United States has started their games relatively well, especially the first game against Ghana with the Dempsey goal in the first minute. The second and third games were a bit shaky. A poor clearance against Portugal by Cameron led directly to a Nani goal, and the Germany game was scary because Brad Davis would not defend against a marauding Jerome Boateng, who whipped in numerous crosses in the first 20 minutes before Zusi and Davis switched sides to nullify the threat.
If the United States can get up early it could be crucial to making Belgium come out of their shell, giving the United States more opportunities for dangerous counterattacks. Having said that, it must be noted that the USMNT does not want to sit in and invite pressure, but instead should play possession style soccer forcing the Belgians back into their own half, but being very wary of their speed on the wings.
The second thing the American’s need to do is have width in attack. This will help the USMNT pin back the Belgian’s in their own half. In order to have width, both the full backs, Johnson and Beasley, will need to push forward to exploit the Belgian full-backs who are likely going to be traditional center-backs, Vertonghen and Alderweireld, or if Kompany is injured and one of the two must shift central, Dembele could be used as an axillary left-back. If Dembele were to start it would be very beneficial to the USMNT, as he would be uncomfortable defending when Johnson came forward. Fabian Johnson has been America’s best threat coming out of defense as he can provide pace and has an eye for setting up goals.
An interesting proposition that some writers have thrown out is for DeAndre Yedlin to start as a right-winger for the United States. Yedlin has come on a substitute in two games so far in the FIFA World Cup and has played exceptionally. He provides an immense amount of pace on the flanks, and could switch with Fabian Johnson when he goes forward as Yedlin is a natural right back and would be comfortable holding as Johnson makes one of his signature forays forward. Yedlin could also help stem the threat of Eden Hazard on the left side of the Belgian attack.
The third of the five things that the USMNT must do to defeat Belgium in the FIFA World Cup is to have width in defense to stem the threat of counterattacks by the Red Devils. This point is directly linked to the second point. The key battles will be on the wings with Fabian Johnson vs. Eden Hazard and DeMarcus Beasley vs. Dries Mertens, and in the middle with Kyle Beckerman trying to handle the threat of Kevin De Bruyne. When Johnson or Beasley get forward Beckerman must move towards their positions to give them cover or the right and left midfielders must hold back in the attack as to not upset the balance of attack and defense.
The fourth thing is to continue giving freedom to Jones and Bradley. Even though Michael Bradley has not had the best of tournaments he did cover the most distance of any player in the group stage according to the official statistics of the FIFA World Cup. He has better possession than Jones as well, but has made poor choices in critical situation. And since he is a player Americans think of as one of our main leaders, his poor decisions have been highlighted further. He hunts down the ball and gets in to positions to influence the game even if his final pass has been lacking.
Jones on the other hand has played like a man reborn, with the security blanket of Kyle Beckerman left to sit in front of the USMNT back four, Jones has been given license to get forward and push from the midfield. At times in the FIFA World Cup group stages Jones was the furthest player forward on the pitch, running in front of Dempsey. Jones has been outstanding now that he is able to use his skills in a balance of offense and defense instead of being asked to be the lone holding midfielder while Bradley attacks. Beckerman, Jones and Bradley just need to continue with their intense work rate and they can easily match the physical and technically talented trio of Witsel, Fellaini, and De Bruyne.
The fifth and final point for the Americans is to not let in a late goal by sitting back too deep if the USMNT gets an early goal. There have been lapses in concentration late by the American’s most notably the Ghanaian and Portugal equalizers. Every single Belgian goal so far this tournament has come after the 70th minute. The Belgian’s have some threatening substitutes who can come off of the bench including Divock Origi, Kevin Mirallas, Nancer Chadli and Adan Januzaj. All of these players have pace that can affect the USMNT late in the game when their legs are tired so it will be vital for the American’s to remain vigilant.
If the United States can stick to the game plan that Jurgen Klinsmann sets out for them, they will have a great chance to qualify for the quarterfinals of the tournament. They need to start well, have width in attack, watch for quick counters, give Jones and Bradley freedom to hunt down the ball in possession, and be vigilant until the end of the match. These five things above are musts for the USMNT to defeat Belgium and become the second CONCACAF team to advance to the final eight of the FIFA World Cup.
By B. Taylor Rash