USA vs. Belgium Preview: No Sympathy for the Red Devils

M.F. DiBellaCorrespondent IJune 29, 2014

Hands Across America
Hands Across AmericaPaul Sancya/Associated Press

The USA faces a tough test against the Red Devils—and we're talking the USMNT's World Cup last-16 opponent Belgium here, not Ann Coulter and her ilk.

It wasn't the most majestic group stage for the Yanks, but the end result was sublime: a trip to the knockout stages that only a brave few outside of Jurgen Klinsmann's camp dared to envision.

The match against Germany went about as expected; while the U.S. have a clear team concept and some quality throughout, there is still that higher echelon that the team must reach to be considered a true, (re-)emerging football power—the U.S. might have found themselves in the semifinal in 2002, were it not for a poor refereeing decision.

Belgium have players at elite clubs throughout Europe, most notably Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Marouane Fellaini (who failed to impress during his first campaign for Manchester United) and Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), who appears doubtful for the match as per Fox Soccer:

From top to bottom, Belgium's roster is filled with players from decorated European clubs. Goalkeeper Thibault Courtois (Atletico Madrid), Kevin De Bruyne (Wolfsburg) and struggling striker Romelu Lukaku (Everton) will all have an impact on this contest.

Is Belgium's talent pool any more intimidating than Germany's? No.

The U.S. can play with anyone, and they have the benefit of fresher legs from their MLS-based players (the MLS season started March 8, while most European leagues run August-May).

Considering both sides' group play, getting an accurate read on this match is difficult. Belgium won all three of their group stage matches rather unconvincingly; if Group G was the "group of death," then Group H was the "group of the half-dead," with particularly subpar performances from Russia and South Korea.

Belgium has other injury concerns at the back outside of Kompany, who is team captain and one of the world's best center backs. Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal) is also a major question mark, while second-choice backs Anthony Vanden Borre and Laurent Ciman will also be unavailable, as per NBC's Pro Soccer Talk.

Belgium are still considered prohibitive favorites in this match, despite having just one player with a World Cup pedigree in Daniel Van Buyten, who featured for les Diables Rouges in 2002—the side's last Cup appearance.

This graphic based on ESPN's Soccer Power Index illustrates Team USA's probability of defeating the other last-16 competitors, via FiveThirtyEight:

FiveThirtyEight, ESPN Soccer Power Index

The index, updated daily, currently gives the U.S. a 41.2 percent chance of winning the tie (further calculations give the U.S. a 10.7 percent chance of making the semis and a 0.7 percent chance of winning the competition).

Goalkeeper Tim Howard has the benefit of knowing Lukaku and backup winger Kevin Mirallas well, as all three played together for Everton in the Premier League last season, per Goal.

In terms of tactics, Klinsmann is as cagey as ever in the run-up, but he will have to find more convincing attacking options if the U.S. wish to play for anything more than penalty kicks.

The U.S. will need to defend as resolutely as they did against Germany, but they will also need to forgo the drab play and link up the wings as they did against Portugal.

In the midfield, Michael Bradley has yet to play to his potential. Jermaine Jones was the only real threat going forward against Germany as Graham Zusi and Kyle Beckerman did very little positively in the middle of the park.

Clint Dempsey played valiantly but wasn't particularly effective as the lone striker.

At the center of the defense, the U.S. will probably stay with Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez, who did well in relief of the beleaguered Geoff Cameron. Wing-backs DaMarcus Beasley and Fabian Johnson were largely ineffective against Germany but should feature again.

It appears that Jozy Altidore may only be available in a reserve role, per NBC, which leaves Klinsmann with limited formation options. The 4-2-3-1 might have shown promise against Portugal, but against the more stout Germans the U.S.'s play looked stagnant.

Who Got The Wilmots?
Who Got The Wilmots?Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

While Belgium prevailed 4-2 over the U.S. in May of 2013, this match will likely be tight. Extra time and perhaps even penalties may be needed here.

Though the Belgians might have the edge in technical ability and overall skill level, the U.S. have more grit, belief and team unity, as well as incredible fan support.

The match comes down to Belgium's Golden Generation versus a battling and resilient Generation Yes in Team USA. This match is too close to call, but the USA soccer patriot in me wishes for a dramatic 2-1 win in extra time.

Let's hope the Belgians will be drowning their sorrows in their Duvels after this one. The winner likely gets Argentina for their trouble.