USA vs. Belgium: Key Factors That Will Decide 2014 World Cup Round of 16 Clash

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USA vs. Belgium: Key Factors That Will Decide 2014 World Cup Round of 16 Clash
Julio Cortez/Associated Press

The USA did what many fans and analysts thought was impossible by progressing from the 2014 World Cup's Group of Death, and now they'll face one of the most popular teams in all of football in the round of 16, taking on Belgium on Tuesday.

The Belgians haven't looked like an offensive juggernaut yet, winning all three of their group-stage matches by a single goal, but defensively, they've been rock solid. The Red Devils are joined by Costa Rica as the only two teams yet to concede a goal from open play, a remarkable feat.

The Belgians have incredible talent, but they're young, inexperienced and hardly battle-tested. The USA, on the other hand, are more talented than people give them credit for, but they might have been tested too much already.

Everything will be on the line when these two teams meet on Tuesday, so let's look at some of the key factors that will decide this round-of-16 clash.

 

Fitness, Health

Ricardo Mazalan/Associated Press

The USA's progression from the Group of Death was a phenomenal achievement, but one that came with a price. When you play three matches against top-quality sides with little rest in between, it will affect a team's fitness and health. Add the one match in Manaus' harsh climate, and you end up with a team that is tired.

American players struggled with cramps and minor injuries in every single one of their matches, and they had to give it their all for the full 270 minutes they've played so far.

The Belgians? They won all three of their matches by shifting gear in the final 20 minutes, and against South Korea, they fielded a team made up of mostly bench players to protect their stars from injury and suspension.

Andrew Medichini/Associated Press

One of the Red Devils' biggest strengths is their physicality, particularly in the centre of the pitch where they have top players like Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini. Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones showed the world they can match up with anyone during the group stages, and the duo shouldn't fear their midfield opponents.

But their recovery will be a lot more difficult than that of the Belgians ahead of this tie, and how that recovery goes will largely determine the outcome of this match.

 

Michael Bradley vs. The Midfield Triangle

Ricardo Mazalan/Associated Press

Michael Bradley hasn't been the USA's worst performer during the 2014 World Cup, but he has been the biggest disappointment. He's the team's creative spark plug in the centre of the pitch when he's at his best, and in Brazil, he's failed to produce too many open looks for any of his teammates.

CBS' Jason La Canfora is one of many football enthusiasts not happy with what he's seen from the midfielder so far:

Bradley's facing a lot of criticism, and via the Associated Press' Ronald Blum, he knows it, or at least that's what he told reporters after the Yanks' win over Ghana:

I'm certainly honest enough and hard enough with myself to know that it wasn't my sharpest night, but unfortunately they're not all going to be. I think as a team we realized at a certain point that it wasn't going to be a night making a million passes or necessarily playing the most beautiful soccer, but it was about running and tackling and closing down and making the game hard on Ghana.

Belgium's midfield triangle of Fellaini, Witsel and Kevin de Bruyne isn't stronger than Germany's, but they're not that much worse either. What they do better even than the Germans, however, is win the ball back by sheer force and launch the counter out to the wings.

They're big, physical and they keep on running for ages. Witsel in particular can be a nightmare for opposing midfielders in possession, as shared by Club Metro's Jonas Giaever:

Bradley needs to find his best form, and he needs to find it fast. He can't afford giveaways like the ones that led to Portugal's equalising goal in his team's second match, and the USA need his vision and creativity to get past one of the best defences left in the tournament.

 

The Concentration of Fabian Johnson

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Johnson has perhaps been the USA's breakout performer of the tournament, putting together an excellent campaign at the right-back position. He's been active moving forward, adding a lot of depth to the attack, and his defensive work has been very solid.

Belgium's left-back will most likely once again be Jan Vertonghen, who plays as a centre-back on the club level. The prospect of taking advantage of that perceived weakness is tantalising, but American fans should hold their horses—there's one Eden Hazard lining up in front of him.

Christophe Ena/Associated Press

Yes, Hazard. The man who was nearly invisible against Russia for 80 minutes before deciding the match with three world-class flashes in a span of five minutes. The Chelsea winger isn't going to give you 90 minutes of consistent pressure, but give him an inch of space and he'll punish you for it.

Hazard can look disinterested or out of form for an hour and suddenly turn it on in the blink of an eye. He's vital to Belgium's attacking plans, and his bursts inside coming from the left are absolutely lethal.

If he starts out slow, Johnson will be tempted to aggressively run over him and take on Vertonghen near the Belgian box. It's a good tactic, but it is absolutely crucial Johnson stays careful and remembers who he's supposed to be marking.

Because if Hazard decides to wake up and Johnson happens to be 20 feet away from him when it happens, the USA could be in some serious, serious trouble.

 

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