By Steven Goff The Washington Post
SALVADOR, Brazil — Every four years, soccer cleans its slate and allows nations to reinvent themselves. Forgotten teams resurface. Small programs make big strides. Champions uphold their legacy or, in the case of Spain this summer, show their age.
For the second consecutive World Cup, the United States is in position for a breakthrough, a fresh narrative, a defining moment.
Four years ago in South Africa, the Americans won their first-round group in a heroic manner but lost to Ghana on an extra-time goal in the knockout stage. It wasn’t an upset; rather, it was a missed opportunity to reach the quarterfinals for the second time in three tournaments and set the tone for the next World Cup cycle.
U.S.-BELGIUM, TUESDAY AT 1 P.M.; TV: ESPN (CABLE)
Today, the U.S. squad enters a round-of-16 match against Belgium with another chance to nudge the program along a little further. The Belgians are a more formidable foe than Ghana was in 2010, having arrived in Brazil with a stable of top-flight talent and a deserved label as dark-horse candidates to hit the semifinals or beyond.
But the Americans recognize another opportunity — on soccer’s grandest stage, nonetheless — to take a considerable step.
“We worked hard for this moment,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said Monday at Arena Fonte Nova in this seaside city. “We made it through a very difficult group and now we want more. We are very, very hungry and focused and have a lot of respect for the Belgium side but no fear at all.”
The Americans would not have shown outward fear against any opponent, but given its pedigree, Belgium strikes less fear than historic titans such as Brazil, Argentina or Netherlands.
Facing a Belgian side entered in its first major competition in 12 years, the U.S. squad sees an opening to extend its stay and continue stirring enthusiasm back home.
Like Belgian beer, but don’t want to support Belgium? Drink American.
“The country is paying attention in a way that it’s never done before, and we have a chance to make some history,” U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said. “Obviously, we’ve been to the quarters before — the semis in 1930. But this is a big day, a game we think we can win.”
They think they can win despite playing ungraceful at times and, in the absence of sustained possession, allowed opponents to set the terms. But they have also shown resilience, the capability to score — four goals in the first two group matches — and overcome duress. They have received strong performances from goalkeeper Tim Howard, right back Fabian Johnson, midfielders Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman, and forward Clint Dempsey.
SALVADOR, Brazil — Jozy Altidore has recovered sufficiently from his left hamstring strain to be available, although it appears he is unlikely to start. The forward has not played since the Americans’ June 16 opener, when he was taken off on a stretcher during the first half.
“Just having him with us tomorrow is huge,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said Monday, adding Altidore’s time on the field depends on “how much work is in his legs.”
The U.S. plays Belgium in the knockout round of the World Cup at 4 p.m. EDT Tuesday. Here is how the teams match up:
Attacking: Both teams managed just four goals in group play with all of Belgium’s scores coming in the final 20 minutes of its games. But Belgium has been more active and balanced in its attack, averaging four more shots a game than the U.S. and spreading its scoring among four players. Much was expected of Chelsea’s Eden Hazard and Everton’s Romelu Lukaku, but they’ve been nonfactors here, taking just four shots combined. If they get on track, Belgium could be dangerous. On the other side, the U.S. attack is statistically the worst in the World Cup. If striker Jozy Altidore, who has played just 21 minutes here, can go in his return from a strained hamstring that could help a team that has relied primarily on Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones. Those two have combined for three of their team’s four goals and 12 of its 27 shots. Edge: Belgium
Defending: Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois, among the best goalkeepers in the world, has given up just one goal – on a penalty kick less than half an hour into the opening game. Since then he’s been perfect. And in front of him, in central defense, Belgium hopes to get back the imposing Vincent Kompany, the team captain who missed Belgium’s group-play final because of a groin injury. If Kompany can’t go, Belgium’s defense – already without Thomas Vermaelen and Anthony Vanden Borre – becomes far less formidable. For the U.S., Tim Howard has been solid in the nets, making five saves against Germany and four – many of them acrobatic – against Portugal. His defenders have been less reliable, though, leading to far too many easy chances. Omar Gonzalez’s return to the lineup against Germany has helped stabilize that back line. Edge: Belgium.
Bench: Three of Belgium’s four goals have come off the bench while the U.S. got the deciding goal in its lone victory from second-half substitute John Brooks. Belgium’s bench is deeper and more experienced, although it’s been weakened by injuries to the back line. The U.S. sideline features four players with fewer than 10 international caps. Edge: Belgium.
Coaching: Juergen Klinsmann has made very few mistakes in this tournament. He’s been so good, one player has credited his success to the sprinkling of magic “Klinsmann Dust.” A master motivator, Klinsmann also has his U.S. players believing they’re a team of destiny and that’s allowed the team to perform better than the sum of its parts. Belgium’s Marc Wilmots, with more talent at his disposal, has been anything but magical. His team, a dark horse contender for the title coming in, has struggled to find cohesion, leaving it to rely on rare moments of individual brilliance to get by. Against the U.S., by far the best team Belgium will have faced in Brazil, that may not be enough. If the U.S. is to have a chance here it will have to rely heavily on things that are hard to measure: intangibles, heart, team spirit. Edge: U.S.
Prediction: Belgium 1-0.