United States' Jermaine Jones, center, celebrates scoring his side's first goal during the group G World Cup soccer match between the USA and Portugal at the Arena da Amazonia in Manaus, Brazil, Sunday, June 22, 2014.
Last week, they stared down death. Death—in the form of Portugal and Ghana, at least—blinked first. Now the USMNT faces a different sort of challenge: a golden generation of soccer talent hailing from the land of primo beers, rich chocolates and fluffy waffles.
Jurgen Klinsmann, Clint Dempsey and company don't want to wake from this World Cup dream run after escaping the tournament's Group of Death against all odds. Their next test comes Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET (on ESPN) against tiny Belgium, which can now add world-class football to the above list of pleasing national exports.
The USA-Belgium match in Salvador is each squad's first in the World Cup knockout phase. The stakes? They couldn't be higher — or laid out in starker terms. Win the game and move on as one of just eight teams that can still claim hopes of hoisting the World Cup itself after the tournament final on July 13. Or lose and go home.
No more draws. Tied after 90 minutes? Play 30 more. Still knotted up after extra time? Go to penalty kicks, the mano-a-mano drama-fest that ended in abject heartbreak for bothChile and Greece this weekend.
Here's all you need to know ahead of Tuesday's USA-Belgium showdown.
How far can grit and mojo take the USA?
With a win, a loss and a draw, the U.S. acquitted itself well in Group G. But that doesn't change the simple truth that this isn't a hyper-talented squad. There are many good players, to be sure, but this USMNT isn't laden with guys who play club ball for teams in Europe's top pro leagues — as is the case with, say, Belgium's national squad.
Partly due to star striker Jozy Altidore's hamstring injury, partly due to the subpar play of Michael Bradley, partly due to the quality of its opponents and partly due to other factors, the result has been a squad that — while tough-minded, scrappy and easy to like — hasn't played a very attack-minded brand of football. The U.S. was outshot 54-27 in its three group-stage matches and registering just 72 attacks, the latter stat ranking 31st out of the group-stage's 32 teams, according to the Associated Press.
But this team has an undeniable gritty persona — no less than two players, Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones, will face Belgium with broken noses sustained in group play. Time and again, the offense has bent without breaking too much. They've gotten goals when they've been needed most. And the players have a palpable sense of unity and love for one another. All of those attributes helped propel the U.S. out of a lethal group — but can it take them farther too?
Small, but mighty — but not yet ballin'
Belgium is a small country — only 11 million people live there — and the Red Devils haven't qualified for the World Cup since 2002. But Belgium is currently riding a rare confluence of talented players coming of age at just the right time. They were widely buzzed about as a dark-horse contender to win the whole thing in Brazil for months before the tournament began.
Eden Hazard, who's just 23 years old and plays club ball for the iconic London side Chelsea, is a world-class attacker from the midfield. Vincent Kompany from Manchester City is a big, physical defender, who's also world-class at his position. Striker Romelu Lukaku, just 21 years old and Hazard's teammate at Chelsea, looks headed for global superstardom. Marouane Fellaini of Manchester United and Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois are also elite. The list goes on, but that Premier League five-some is a good start.
Despite their stable of talent, however, the Red Devils didn't exactly drop jaws in group play. Sure, they beat all three teams they played, but only by one goal apiece against what was arguably the World Cup's weakest group. Perhaps that dark-horse chatter was premature and Belgium is still four-years away from seizing World Cup glory. But, more ominously, this may be a team that coasted against subpar competition and is ready to erupt now.
Jurgen Klinsmann's golden touch
Klinsmann's coaching decisions have been downright savant-like in recent weeks. He was widely ripped for leaving American soccer hero Landon Donovan off the U.S. roster, but it's worked out just fine. He has the team playing inspired football and — more impressively — his substitutions in Brazil have paid off time and time again. Let's recap.
- With the U.S. desperately needing a win against Ghana to open its brutal group, Klinsmann brought midfielder Graham Zusi off the bench. That was no big surprise, but what did seem a head-scratcher was inserting 21-year-old defender John Brooks, a player whose inclusion on the roster was not all that expected. Tied in the 86th minute, Zusi placed a beautiful corner kick that Brooks headed into the goal for a critical 2-1 win.
- Against Portugal in the USMNT's second game, Klinsmann inserted 20-year-old DeAndre Yedlin in the second half. Not only that, he put the youngster with just 18 months of pro experience in at winger instead of his typical right-back position. Yedlin's pace changed the complexion of the match, however, and his aggression catalyzed Clint Dempsey's goal for a late 2-1 lead.
- Once hailed as a rising star on defense, Omar Gonzalez has been on the outs with many U.S. fans thanks to a string of poor performances and mental lapses. He hardly saw the field in the USA's first two games, but then Klinsmann started him against fearsome Germany in the Group G finale. Gonzalez came through in a major way, with several spectacular tackles in the box to stifle Germany's potent attack.
Does Klinsmann have another trick or two up his sleeve? He's certainly had the magic touch so far.
Could injuries change the calculus?
Jozy Altidore's hamstring injury early in the Ghana match was a very big deal, robbing the U.S. of its target striker, forcing Dempsey to play alone up front and changing the chemistry of the U.S. attack. For the first time since then, the USMNT says he's "ready and available" for the Belgium match. Simple gamesmanship? Perhaps, but perhaps not.
Meanwhile, Kompany, the Belgians' best defender, is battling a groin injury that puts his availability for Tuesday's match in doubt. The Red Devils are still stacked without him and — as with Altidore — one never knows what's true and what's intentional misinformation in these types of situations.
Still, a Yankee can hope. Altidore returning — even for just 20 minutes off the bench — and Kompany sitting out constitute a significant shift in fortune.
Here's what to expect, America
Make no mistake, Belgium's overall talent level has the potential to explode on the U.S. But the USMNT has put the world on notice that it can hang with top-shelf teams through determination, effort and opportunism.
This match will look familiar to USMNT supporters. Belgium will likely dominate the ball. American players and coaches have talked about wanting to attack more in recent days, but simple logic dictates that they'll have to play defensively to protect goalkeeper Tim Howard against Belgium's dynamic offense. Led by Hazard, the Red Devils' midfield is especially dangerous, so Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman will need to be sharp. The typically reliable Michael Bradley, who has looked strangely out of sorts in Brazil, will also need to step up in a major way for the U.S. to find success.
While Belgium isn't what casual soccer fans would think of as a world power, the U.S. is indeed a distinct underdog here. Things could get ugly if Klinsmann and company aren't careful. But this American group is tough, brave and backs down from no one. Reports out of camp also indicate the U.S. squad is loose and upbeat after emerging from a group where most predicted they'd wilt.
Reaching the quarterfinals looks like a long shot. But after staring down the Group of Death, the USMNT has already proved anything is possible. Time will tell if they can keep the American dream alive for one more match.
Tags: ENTERTAINMENT, SOCCER, SPORTS, World Cup