Belgium vs. USA: 6 Things We Learned
You could forgive American supporters of the United States men's national team for their relative ignorance of the sides Jurgen Klinsmann's team played in Group G of this World Cup.
If you had known a great deal about Ghana's national team before the Americans beat them, consider yourself part of a serious football minority. African football does not get much coverage in the States.
Just about everyone knew who Cristiano Ronaldo was, but that is only because he and Argentina's Lionel Messi are the two best players on the planet. After Ronaldo, Portugal's side was relatively nameless.
And though the German team is full of internationally known footballers (most notably Thomas Muller), the Bundesliga is another competition that lacks cachet in America.
Against Belgium, though, American fans were treated to a match against many familiar names and faces thanks to the Premier League's infiltration into the American sports scene.
Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), Eden Hazard (Chelsea) and Vincent Kompany (Manchester City) all started for Belgium. Simon Mignolet (Liverpool) and Romelu Lukaku (Everton) were on the Belgian team sheet. Even a casual Premier League watcher should know who these players are.
Consequently, even casual Premier League observers had to know just what the Americans were up against in this clash with Belgium.
Here are six takeaways from United States 1-2 Belgium.
Chris Wondolowski and Aron Johannsson Were No Replacements for Jozy Altidore
Much ink was spilled (and bytes spent) over Landon Donovan's omission from the American 23-man roster. Part of the controversy surrounding Klinsmann's decision to drop Donovan was the inclusion of Chris Wondolowski and Aron Johannsson.
Looking at the American side now, it might as well have been 21 men. Even after Jozy Altidore's early injury against Ghana, neither Wondolowski nor Johannsson had played any significant part in the American World Cup campaign.
Instead, Klinsmann resigned himself to letting Clint Dempsey play more or less alone at the tip of the spear, with midfielder Graham Zusi slotting in as a fifth midfielder with license to steal forward on occasion.
Ultimately, then, it seems that Klinsmann's real reason for leaving Donovan behind was that, like Wondolowski and Johannsson, there was never a circumstance where Donovan was going to play much.
And at least you could trust Wondolowski and Johannsson not to go to the media and cry about it.
Klinsmann did turn to Wondolowski in the final 20 minutes of the second half. Wondolowski came on for Zusi, playing much the same role but with a striker's threat.
Regrettably, Wondolowski's incomprehensible miss as the second half drew to a close, barring something unexpected, will be the moment that defines his international career.
Maybe Klinsmann knew something we didn't.
To the United States, Germany and Belgium Are a Distinction Without a Difference
Belgium are not as good a footballing side as Germany is. To this American group, though, that doesn't matter.
Germany are far more lethal on the counter-attack than Belgium are, and the Belgians do not have any incandescent scorers like Muller or Miroslav Klose.
The Germans terrified the Americans for more than 90 minutes. American goalkeeper Tim Howard could have complained of post-traumatic stress disorder after facing nine shots on goal from the Germans, many of them quality chances.
The Belgians are not particularly threatening or scary. What they are, though, is ruthlessly efficient and disciplined. Like the Germans, they are stingy in their own half and monotonously effective in the offensive zone.
After one half of play, the Belgians had less possession (47 percent to the Americans' 53 percent) but had earned eight corner kicks to three for the Americans and put three shots on Howard out of nine taken.
Whereas the German attack feels like trying to repel a swarm of angry wasps, the Belgian attack feels like intermittent, determined encroachment from a handful of biting flies. It does not make you as anxious, but it is just as capable of piercing your defense.
So while it was a different team the Americans were playing this time out, they were forced to play, essentially, the same packed-in, defensive football they did against the Germans. And as with the Germans, it worked for a scoreless first half.
Klinsmann's Reliance on Youth Paid Dividends Throughout This Tournament
Julian Green, 19, had not appeared for the United States in this World Cup until shortly before scoring in the 107th minute against Belgium.
21-year-old John Brooks scored a goal for the ages against Ghana, and DeAndre Yedlin, 20, played perhaps the biggest role for the Americans in the World Cup.
Yedlin appeared in both the Portugal and Germany matches and contributed neatly to Dempsey's goal against the Portuguese (that looked to be a match-winner).
Then, against Belgium, stalwart full-back Fabian Johnson left injured in the 32nd minute, and it was Yedlin's number that was called to replace him.
That was an awfully big ask of Yedlin from Klinsmann, and Yedlin proved more than up to the task.
Green's goal, however, served as both a delicious tease of what may come from the prodigy in his American international career and, just maybe, an indictment of Klinsmann's failure to ever put him out there before the cause seemed totally lost.
Possession Without Threat Is Almost as Bad as No Possession at All
As referenced earlier, the Belgians were plenty happy to let the Americans have the ball for half of this knockout-stage match. They just were not apt to let the Americans do anything exciting or interesting with it.
Two-thirds of the way through the match, the Americans were still enjoying roughly 50 percent of the possession or better.
As the match wore on, though, it almost seemed as though the Belgians were allowing the Americans to take the ball over the halfway line for the sole purpose of stealing it quickly and trying to sneak a goal past a momentarily stretched American defense.
Belgian defender Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham Hotspur) made a few forays into the offensive half, and when he did, the Americans seemed to have trouble accounting for the extra man Vertonghen's presence created in their box.
When it was not Vertonghen pouring forward, it was Hazard or Kevin De Bruyne flitting around the edge of the area either creating a chance or taking a shot himself.
Defending for more than an hour is exhausting, and as the match wore on it was noticeable that the Belgian defensive posture was spread out and fearless. The Americans, on the other hand, were pinned into the box like their cleats were attached to magnets under the pitch.
So You're Saying There's a Chance! Only Because of Tim Howard.
"Belgium must be very, very frustrated," said ESPN's Ian Darke on the American telecast of the match as the 70th minute came and went without a Belgian goal—despite a handful or more of scoring chances.
Much of their frustration was due to Howard, who played like a combination of Plastic Man and Captain America for the entire match.
Then, Klinsmann made a move that only a coach playing with the house's money could make.
Klinsmann had already overachieved by surviving Group G ahead of both Portugal and Ghana. With the Americans' knockout game against Belgium winnowing down to the end of regulation time, Klinsmann took Zusi off for Wondolowski.
In so doing, Klinsmann tacitly admitted that his gassed side was probably not going to fare all that well in 30 minutes of extra time. Klinsmann realized that the Americans' best chance to win and advance was to be a bit daring and bring on another goal-minded player with the hope of scoring a late winner.
Darke was right, of course. The longer the Belgians went pouring shots on the American goal without scoring, the more likely it was that the Americans could flat out steal the match.
Especially with Howard turning in, as Darke called it, "one of the games of even his distinguished career."
As with ice hockey, there are games that goalkeepers can win all by themselves. Howard, who turned away nine shots on goal (out of 25 total!) through 80 minutes, was trying to will the Americans to victory seemingly all by himself.
You always have a chance with a hot keeper. And if Wondolowski had converted his gilt-edged chance, people would be naming American high schools after Howard right now.
Eventually, Every Dam Breaks Given Enough Rain, Enough Weight and Enough Time
After defending so bravely and with such resolve for almost 100 minutes, the United States lasted only two minutes of extra time before their defense came apart like a cut-rate three-piece suit.
Belgium brought on Lukaku—think a healthy Altidore with even more speed and skill—to begin extra time, and it was his run down the right side that opened the American defense to De Bruyne's quick strike in the 93rd minute.
The goal came after 12 Howard saves and 20 other Belgian shots that missed the target but carried varying degrees of threat. Predictably, De Bruyne's goal instantly deflated America's balloon.
And where other sides might have taken that lone goal and sat on it, Belgium instead continued to take the occasional chance up the pitch (burning the clock all the while).
When Lukaku's strike rippled Howard's net to put Belgium up 2-0, the match seemed entirely lost for the Americans. Green temporarily put the last rites on hold with a gorgeous volley in the 107th minute.
Green's goal was a wonderful moment of skill, a small salve and a lifeline for an American side that seemed dead and buried in extra time, and the Americans' eloquent and beautifully executed free-kick set play in the 114th minute was deserving of an equalizer.
On balance, though, even the most ardent United States supporter would have to admit that the Belgians were the better team and deserved to win.
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