The United States men’s national soccer team plays its biggest game in four years on Tuesday when it takes on Belgium in the Round of 16 of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Belgium is heavily favored to defeat the United States. The Red Devils are a rising power in the soccer world, and some experts picked them to win the tournament.
But U.S. soccer also is on the ascendancy, and Team USA has defied the odds since the start of the tournament. Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann led the U.S. out of the “Group of Death,” and the former World Cup winner told his players to reschedule their flights home for July 13 — the day of the World Cup final.
The Americans will have to re-revise their travel plans if they don’t beat Belgium. Upsetting Belgium won’t be easy, but it’s possible. Here’s how:
Follow the orders of Klinsmann, Sun Tzu
Last week, Klinsmann told a press conference that he might shift from the cautious and pragmatic style of play Team USA used in the group stage to the more aggressive and proactive one it used during World Cup qualifying and the pre-World Cup exhibitions.
The high-risk change might give Team USA its best, and only, shot at winning. The Belgians are strong going forward, but injuries have decimated its defense. If Team USA possesses the ball at least 50 percent of the time and puts Belgium under continued pressure, it would play to its own strengths while attacking its opponent’s weaknesses — basically what Sun Tzu taught in the “Art of War.”
Contain Eden Hazard; win the flanks
The winner of USA-Belgium likely will be decided in the wide areas of the field. Both teams are expected to use a 4-5-1 formation, which will turn the middle of the field into a battlefield clogged with big and powerful players.
If Team USA can sustain possession and penetrate on the flanks, it will reap a double reward. The United States would be attacking Belgium’s weaker points (defensively), and neutralizing its greatest attacking strengths.
If Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens — Belgium’s superstar and star goal makers and scorers, respectively — spend more time in their own half than in the Americans’, Belgium will be less likely to score. It’s that simple, but it won’t be easy. Hazard played only two minutes in Belgium’s last group-stage game and will be fresh when he faces Team USA.
DaMarcus Beasley and Fabian Johnson will be in the spotlight. The two United States fullbacks and likely starting wide midfielders Graham Zusi and Alejandro Bedoya must pin Belgium’s wingers back on their turf.
Cheat and/or get lucky
Belgium is a more skillful team than the United States. Physically and tactically, the matchup is almost even. Belgium is a young team (the youngest in the World Cup), so it is susceptible to bouts of self-doubt, loss of focus and inconsistency. Team USA must use its experience and exuberant team spirit to its advantage and win the mental game within the game. That means: anything goes.
If Team USA must dive, flop, fake injuries or other forms of what some call “cheating,” so be it. Gamesmanship is an essential part of winning at the highest level, and few, if any teams win a World Cup without catching a few man-made or soccer-god-given breaks.
We understand that it’s not the American way, but the stakes have never been higher. Team USA can prolong one of its greatest soccer success stories with a win, and it must do whatever it takes to make that happen. The fate of our soccer nation, our more perfect soccer union, depends on it.