Last spring, the USA lost a friendly to an upstart Belgium 4-2, a match in which the American defense looked hopelessly inexperienced. Belgium ran rampant in Cleveland, even without star playmaker Eden Hazard. That night, the United States did not look anywhere close to the level of the Red Devils, putting themselves under loads of pressure going into the Gold Cup. However, a year later, tables have turned. Belgium is now the side that is struggling with pressure, and the U.S. is the upstart. In today’s round of 16 game, anything can happen.
The biggest difference from the United States side that was torn apart a year ago is the defense. That day, the back four was Cameron, Gonzalez, Goodson and Beasley, who was still learning the left back position. Since then, Matt Besler and Fabian Johnson have stepped into the first team, and both have been tremendous in Brazil. Today, the two of them will need to continue that form against the Belgians. Besler will be tasked with stopping the physical Romelu Lukaku and the pacey Divock Origi. One will start and one will come off the bench, but both are equally dangerous. Johnson will have his hands full with Eden Hazard on the right, as the Chelsea man will be the best player of the field. Keeping Hazard from getting to the byline is absolutely crucial for the American defense.
In midfield, Jermaine Jones will need to continue his scorching form. With Kyle Beckerman next to him, Jones can continue to venture forward as needed. He was the best American a year ago against Belgium, and he will need to be that again today. If he does go forward, Beckerman will have to remain disciplined, because Belgium possess the same talent in midfield that Germany did. There’s not a weak link of the field. As a result, Michael Bradley will be needed more than ever today and he can’t have another poor performance. It’s that simple.
Even if Jozy Altidore is fit enough to play, I wouldn’t give him a start. Stick with the lineup that played against Germany, and if needed, Altidore can be an option off the bench if the U.S. wants a late goal. Gambling on his health would be too big a risk right now, especially in a game that could go 120 minutes. All three substitutions will be needed late on, and wasting one on an Altidore injury setback early could be costly. Jürgen Klinsmann has had the magic touch with substitutions, and he will need to counter an even higher level of success that Belgium’s subs have had in recent games.
I predict the game goes into extra time. Belgium will retain their cautious approach at the start of the game, allowing the United States time to settle in. There will be no early goal this time. As the game builds, chances will start falling for the U.S., who will not be dominated in possession as many fear. The best chance will fall to Bradley, but once again, he will fail to convert. Thibaut Courtois will be hard to beat. On the other end, Tim Howard will be forced into a tough save from Kevin de Bruyne late in the first half, but Belgium won’t be overly dangerous.
The second half will see the Belgians take control of the match, finding success with midfield runners opening up the flanks. Once they open the match up, they will be scary to watch. However, their goal will come from a set piece – off the head of Vincent Kompany, who will have overcome his injury concern to deputize the side. But the U.S. will press on after the goal, sending Jozy Altidore into the mix late on. He will get onto a long ball from Jones and earn a penalty with a clever turn. Clint Dempsey will step up to tie the game. In extra time, the legs will begin to go for the Americans, and the chances will all fall to Belgium. One will land at the feet of Eden Hazard, who will break American hearts. There won’t be enough left in the tank for another comeback and the final score will be Belgium 2 United States 1. I sure hope I’m wrong.
Argentina 2 Switzerland 1
The other game today will also be a good one, with the Swiss putting a scare in Argentina. Lionel Messi will continue his stunning form, scoring an early goal, but the result will be a question of whether his supporting cast shows up. Switzerland’s suspect defense will be exposed once again in the opening minutes, torn apart by a solo run from Messi. Johan Djourou will have trouble making his teammates believe he once started for Arsenal when they beat Messi in 2011. However, Xherdan Shaqiri will find an equalizer against the run of play, scoring a sparkler for the Swiss. When it looks like the tide is turning, Angel di Maria will finally show what he is capable of, beating the Swiss defense on a counter to give Argentina the lead. Messi’s supporting cast will ultimately get the job done.
Well, today is going to be an interesting day. I hope all of you will be watching. I am not nearly as worried about this game as I have been about the others. That’s not to say I am confident, it’s just that I understand at this point, anything can happen. The best team won’t always win. Get it to penalties and who knows who’ll wilt under pressure. Check back for post-match coverage tonight. I believe, despite my prediction. We can do this.
Watch this video and you’ll believe too.