Fullbacks—or lack thereof—are key for both teams
A little more than a year ago, the United States national team played Belgium in a meaningless friendly in Cleveland, Ohio. It was a match in which the Americans looked outmanned and outgunned, conceding four goals against an Eden Hazard-less squad that controlled the affair from the opening minutes. Romelu Lukaku terrorized one flank, beating DaMarcus Beasley on multiple occasions, while Tim Howard, then Brad Guzan spent time under siege. At the time, it was clear the visitors were in a different class.
And yet, when the two squads meet in Salvador on Tuesday afternoon in the Round of 16, the U.S. has a real shot to advance. That optimism stems partially from the lessons learned at FirstEnergy Stadium last May, partially from the Americans’ performance in Brazil, and partially from the recent struggles of the side they will face. The Stars and Stripes will enter the match as the underdog, but make no mistake: there are reasons for optimism.
At Arena Fonte Nova, the fullbacks will be the key. Why? Well, for one thing Belgium doesn’t have any. Right back Anthony Vanden Borre broke his leg against South Korea and left back Thomas Vermaelen is also injured. Belgium captain Vincent Kompany could miss the match with an injury, meaning head coach Marc Wilmots will have no choice but to go with Toby Alderweireld, Nicolas Lombaerts, Daniel Van Buyten, and Jan Vertonghen from right to left. While those four are talented, they are all center backs (although Alderweireld and Vertonghen did play on the outside in the last match against the U.S.)
The Belgians have a tendency to get too narrow in their 4–3–3 formation. This is good for the Americans, who have created much of their offense in Brazil through Fabian Johnson’s overlapping runs. The U.S. right back exploits space on the outside to put in a cross or drive toward goal. DeAndre Yedlin has also been effective doing this from a midfield position late in matches. Jurgen Klinsmann and special tactical advisor Berti Vogts will surely see play on the right flank as the key to getting a goal or two.
For all the pre-tournament hype regarding the European squad and its golden generation, Wilmots’ gang has struggled to score in Brazil. They needed 70 minutes against Algeria, 78 versus Korea Republic, and 88 in their battle with Russia. This could benefit a U.S. team if it means the game stays close until late. Additionally, the Americans have played three tough, physical matches in difficult conditions. It will be almost 90 very humid degrees Tuesday afternoon, the best test of the U.S.’s fitness yet. Klinsmann’s squad needs to do a better job of holding on to the ball when they win it back from the Belgians. Of course, this is the same thing we’ve said before every game.
Ultimately, the match could come down to which side does what we expected them to do at the beginning of the tournament. Belgium was more or less a disappointment; the team has won all three of its games but appeared to struggle in a week group. Can they get their act together for the knockout round or is the golden generation just not quite ready to shine? Call me crazy, but I’m leaning toward the latter.
And then there’s Michael Bradley. The U.S. got out of Group G without its key player performing particularly well. While he ran further than any other player during the group stage, his touch has been off and his passing sporadic at best. There was a moment against Germany when he hit a ball over the top to Jermaine Jones and looked like the Bradley we’re used to seeing, but that was one of his few highlights (and Jones couldn’t corral the pass). Neither Bradley nor the U.S. have been at their best in Brazil, but they’ve gotten this far—and they have another chance.