When analyzing the round-of-16 matchup between the United States and Belgium, the natural inclination might be to look back on the 2013 friendly between the two teams, when the Belgians won, 4-2. But we aren't going to do that here.
After all, the game's top scorer was Christian Benteke, who notched a brace in that match but is missing the entirety of this World Cup due to injury. Heck, Clarence Goodson and Brad Davis started that game. Suffice to say, the United States has come a long way as a unit since that contest.
No, there are more important storylines to study heading into this game than what happened in the past. Let's break down the four key factors in this matchup as a place in the quarterfinals hangs in the balance.
Ah, that's the question. For the United States, the main question is whether striker Jozy Altidore will be able to play in this contest. Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated has an update:
Jermaine Jones has broken nose, able to play Tue. Altidore: improving but status uncertain for Belgium.— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) June 27, 2014
This is 3rd day Altidore has done running on the side.— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) June 27, 2014
Klinsmann on Altidore's chances of playing vs #BEL: "We are very optimistic. Every day is a big step forward for him."— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) June 27, 2014
Getting Altidore back would be huge for the United States. Not only would he provide a target in the box and take a lot of pressure off Clint Dempsey, but he's also vital in the buildup play, as he provides an outlet for the United States deep down the field and is excellent at maintaining possession until his teammates can join in the attack.
A healthy Altidore makes the United States much more dangerous.
Belgium are hoping for a quick recovery over the weekend from first choice defenders Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen as both remain doubtful for their World Cup match against the United States on Tuesday.
Anthony Vanden Borre was ruled out of the tournament on Friday after a scan revealed a crack in his fibula while back-up defender Laurent Ciman is also on the injury list as the team prepare for their last 16 match in Salvador.
Vanden Borre will be out for at least six weeks, said coach Marc Wilmots via Twitter. His fellow right back Ciman has a groin strain.
Belgium was already playing without any true full-backs, so missing Kompany and Vermaelen in the back would really weaken them in defense. And in the above report, Wilmots said the contingency plan is to move winger Nacer Chadli to right back and midfielder Moussa Dembele at left back. Both are talented players, but you can bet the United States would consistently attack either player if they had to be utilized out of position.
This is a huge storyline to pay attention to moving forward, folks.
The Battle on the Flanks
We mentioned Belgium's potential problems at full-back already, but the United States also has to deal with Belgium's incredibly talented wingers. On the left, Chelsea's Eden Hazard is one of the brightest young talents in the game today and is Belgium's most dangerous player. On the right, likely starter Dries Mertens could give DaMarcus Beasley some problems.
But the United States can also do damage down the wing, namely with right back Fabian Johnson making his dangerous runs down the right. In fact, Johnson should once again be a key for the United States, as the country looks to take advantage of Belgium's shaky full-backs.
The team that finds more joy out wide will likely be the team that wins this match.
Winning the Midfield
Let's call a spade a spade—Michael Bradley has not been himself in this World Cup. He's turned the ball over, he's made some really poor decisions and he hasn't provided the creative spark the United States so desperately needs. Give credit where credit is due—the man has worked his butt off. In fact, according to FIFA, he covered more ground in the group stage than any other player.
He needs to be better. But at least he's kept battling.
Both Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones have been pretty darn good. In fact, you could make a strong argument that Jones has been the team's best player in Brazil. His wonder strike against Portugal certainly aids that argument.
But the American midfield trio will be up against a very good Belgian midfield led by its engine, Axel Witsel. Martin Rogers of Yahoo Sports has more on this key player:
'Witsel is strong. You can see that by looking at him,' said Alexander 'Sasha' Kerzhakov, his club teammate at Zenit St. Petersburg in the Russian Premier League. 'But there are all the other things you might not expect. Fast with the feet, fast with the brain. Tackling, you don't get past him. And he can just go past you.'
Belgium currently is enjoying a golden generation of young, talented players. The flashy skill comes from Chelsea's Eden Hazard, Manchester United's Adnan Januzaj, Napoli's Dries Mertens and others. The 6-foot-1 Witsel does the grunt work that makes their attacking possible but he also chips in his own graceful touches and clever tricks when he finds the time.
Disrupting Witsel and keeping him out of a rhythm will be key for the United States. But if he has room to operate and spends 90 minutes bossing the midfield, Belgium will beat the Americans—and probably quite convincingly at that.
Both the United States and Belgium have suffered from inconsistency in this tournament, albeit to different degrees. For the United States, there have been these momentary lapses—think Geoff Cameron completely botching a clearance attempt—that have come back to instantly bite them. For Belgium, however, the lapses tend to stem from a sort of malaise that sets in and lasts 10 to 15 minutes at a time.
Or an entire half, as was the case against Algeria.
The team that can remain consistent throughout is going to be in the much better position to win. The Americans must eliminate the dumb mistakes that have led to quick goals. The Belgians must keep their heads in the game for a full 90 minutes against a team that is better than any squad they faced in the group stage.
The team that fails to do so will be punished.