MOGI DAS CRUZES, Brazil – Highly physical, probably defensive and anxiety-ridden for sure. Not exactly the kind of happy soccer that fans have enjoyed so far at the World Cup, but it’s the likely scenario for Tuesday’s second-round clash between Belgium and the United States.
The stakes certainly are high enough. Belgium has not reached the quarterfinals since 1986 and the U.S. team has already exceeded expectations by emerging from a tough opening group and wants to ride that momentum.
“Don’t be content,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “Nobody can claim that he reached his 100 percent yet.”
That was after the Americans played three grueling games in the Amazon jungle and Brazil’s tropical northeast coast. The U.S. finished ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and Ghana, taking second place in Group G behind Germany.
Tuesday’s winner will face Argentina or Switzerland in Brasilia on Saturday. With support reaching fever pitch back at home, American players realize the increased attention that comes with each match is an opportunity not to be missed to promote the sport in the U.S.
“We want to obviously do well for ourselves, for our country, but it’s a big step for the growth of soccer if we get past Belgium,” defender DaMarcus Beasley said.
Getting past Belgium is no easy task. So far it has conceded only one goal – a penalty at that – in three games. And in Thibaut Courtois it has arguably the most exciting young goalkeeper in the world.
While team captain Vincent Kompany has been excellent in the two games he’s played, the central defender has been struggling with a recurring groin strain and is a doubt for Tuesday’s game.
Another starter, Thomas Vermaelen, has a hamstring injury and has resumed individual exercises. Belgium has treaded extremely carefully to line up three one-goal victories and emerge from its group with a perfect record. Holding back, avoiding errors and pouncing late has become its mantra.
And since the U.S. offense has often been anemic, don’t bet on much of a goal-fest.
In the last two games, Klinsmann opted for a formation with five midfielders to feed lone striker Clint Dempsey. Jozy Altidore, the top American forward, has been sidelined since straining his left hamstring in the first half against Ghana and has been training on his own.
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