The United States surprised many people around the world by advancing through the Group of Death with Germany, Portugal and Ghana. However, things continue to be difficult with a round of 16 battle against Belgium.
While Belgium had not been in the World Cup since 2002, they came into Brazil as a dark horse to bring home a title. The squad has loads of talent all over the pitch, and they had little trouble getting through Group H with a first-place finish.
As FiveThirtyEight points out, it will be difficult for the United States to defeat Belgium in this contest:
Still, we have seen throughout the World Cup that anyone can win. This match will come down to which side can do a better job of answering these questions.
Will Eden Hazard Put the Team on His Back?
We have already seen throughout the World Cup that elite players can make a huge difference in their team's fortunes. Neymar and Lionel Messi have been lighting up the scoresheet to help their sides, while Cristiano Ronaldo is headed home after being less than spectacular in three matches.
Eden Hazard is not quite in this class just yet, but he is not far. He was considered by ESPN FC as one of the top 10 players in the tournament before the World Cup began:
He has not disappointed so far, doing a great job of creating for others by totaling two assists in two starts. He has also been fantastic in making his own opportunities with his dribbling, as noted by WhoScored.com:
Eden Hazard: Has had more successful dribbles per game (6.5) than any other player in World Cup 2014; Son Heung-Min second (6) #BELvsKOR— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) June 26, 2014
For a simplified analysis, ESPN's Paul Carr is here to help:
Report from Maracanã: Eden Hazard is good. #analysis— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) June 22, 2014
The question is whether he can keep this up for a young team that might lack confidence coming through on the big stage. Hazard is not a big-time scorer, but he is the catalyst for this attack and will need to step up to keep Belgium alive in this tournament.
Can They Make Plays Early in the Match?
Dermot Corrigan of ESPN FC is one of many impressed by Belgium's ability to come through with wins in all of their matches:
Belgium also really impressive - wasnt the hardest group, and they've not always played so fluently, but hard to argue with 3 wins from 3.— Dermot Corrigan (@dermotmcorrigan) June 26, 2014
However, examining the victories the way he explained remains cause for concern. The squad was certainly able to win, but needing late goals against inferior opponents is not something you want to live by at this level.
The biggest issue for the squad so far is the inability to do anything in the early part of matches. In the first 69 minutes of each competition, the squad has totaled zero goals while allowing one goal on a penalty against Algeria.
Of course, things turn on late, as the squad has goals in the 70th, 78th, 80th and 88th minutes in the three contests.
In order to be successful in the round of 16, Belgium has to figure out what is causing these slow starts. As the competition gets better, the defenses will not allow late goals, especially those that earn early leads.
How Will Back Line Hold Up?
One of the big question marks coming into the World Cup has not exactly been answered through three matches. Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley have been solid on the outside, but there is still uncertainty in the middle.
The good news is that Omar Gonzalez had a strong effort against Germany while replacing Geoff Cameron, who made a few mistakes in the previous contest against Portugal. Brian Straus of Sports Illustrated described the surprising performance:
Omar Gonzalez must have discovered his form hiding out somewhere in the Amazon. Credit to him. He's been quite good.— Brian Straus (@BrianStraus) June 26, 2014
Matt Besler has been good enough to keep his spot in the lineup, but manager Jurgen Klinsmann will have a tough choice whether to stay with Gonzalez or go back to the more consistent Cameron against Belgium.
Of course, the best thing the team has going for it in the back is Tim Howard. The goalkeeper continues to make huge plays to keep the Americans in games, and this is something they hope will continue.
Klinsmann noted how important the veteran has been so far in saying, via ESPN:
Tim is one of our big shots. He's our leader, he keeps everyone together and obviously we need him right now. In a World Cup if you want to go far you need one of the best goalkeepers in the world -- and we have one.
Still, it will be important for everyone on the pitch to remain organized and focused at all points in the upcoming match.
Can the Midfield Create Enough Chances?
Although Jozy Altidore missed the past two contests with a hamstring injury, he could be available for the next round, via CNN's Rachel Nichols:
At #USMNT presser, Jurgen Klinsmann says Jozy Altidore will miss Thursday's game vs Germany. Could play in the next round if they advance.— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) June 24, 2014
Still, the United States has to continue to plan for life without their starting striker. This will keep Clint Dempsey out of position all alone up front, where he will be forced to more or less wait for opportunities to come to him rather than drop back and get them himself.
As a result, the pressure is on the midfield to make things happen. The problem is that the trio of Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman are all defensive-minded midfielders, while guys like Alejandro Bedoya and Graham Zusi have struggled to maintain possession on the attack.
There is clearly talent on the pitch, but they might need to make changes in order to break through the tough Belgium defense. Andy Glockner of The Cauldron has an interesting solution:
Jurgen needs to think about playing Bradley deeper and maybe using Diskerud, or dropping Dempsey into the hole and playing a striker.— Andy Glockner (@AndyGlockner) June 26, 2014
Bradley has worked hard in this tournament while traveling from box to box in every match, but he is not helping the team much offensively. This strategy could end up leading to a better overall attack while keeping the squad strong throughout the pitch.
Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for the latest breaking news and analysis.