Time/TV: 3 p.m. (central)/ESPN.
Location: Fonte Nova; Salvador, Brazil.
If they win: Winner will face winner of Argentina vs. Switzerland on Saturday at 11 a.m.
Last meeting: Belgium 4, U.S. 2, May 29, 2013 (Cleveland, Ohio).
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LIVE COVERAGE: U.S. vs. Belgium
The scenario: The U.S. men’s national team looks to advance to the quarterfinal round of the World Cup for the second time in the last four World Cup competitions. The U.S.’s last quarterfinal appearance was against Germany in South Korea/Japan 2002 (a 1-0 loss). The Belgians, ranked 11th in the world by FIFA, should probably be ranked higher, as they trot out a lineup of world class players that ply their trade for some of the best club teams on earth. High expectations have followed them to Brazil, and they enter the game as the heavy favorite. Belgium is looking to reach the quarterfinals for the first time since 1986.
X-Factor: Jozy Altidore. The forward hasn’t played since injuring his hamstring in the Americans’ opening game against Ghana in the group stages. If he’s healthy, he can provide the U.S. with a physical and fast presence against the formidable back four of Belgium, led by Manchester City center back Vincent Kompany (who’s battling injuries). Altidore in the lineup also takes some pressure off of Clint Dempsey in the U.S. attack (Dempsey has two of the U.S.’s three goals from open play in the tournament), but it’s also a risk. What are you going to get from Altidore, who hasn’t played in a game in more than two weeks?
Keep an eye on: The Belgian left side of defense. The Belgian defense has played with as many as four center backs at a time during the group stages, so Jan Vertonghen – slotted in at left back, but who plays primarily in the center of the defense in club ball for Tottenham in England – could be caught chasing the play if U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann chooses to attack the left side. The U.S. has speed off the bench in 20-year-old right midfielder/fullback DeAndre Yedlin, who played a key role in the U.S.’s second goal against Portugal in the group stages. Don’t be surprised if Klinsmann goes to the youngster in the second half.
Who needs to step up: Michael Bradley. The Belgian midfield is absolutely loaded. Eden Hazard, Marouane Fellaini, Kevin De Bruyne, and Axel Witsel are all world class players – particularly Hazard, who can play all across the midfield. It’s been well documented that Michael Bradley hasn’t played his best for the U.S. this tournament, but he’s still the team’s most gifted midfielder and is coming off a rebound game against Germany. If Bradley can play at the level his other central midfield partners have played at this tournament (U.S. midfielders Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman were solid to outstanding in every group game), the U.S. won’t be overrun by Belgium’s midfield depth.
Help this man: DaMarcus Beasley. My goodness. Look, Beasley is past his prime, but the 32-year-old left midfielder turned left fullback has held his own in his fourth World Cup. That’s even with him getting little to no defensive help on the left side of the field. Klinsmann started Brad Davis at left midfield against Germany and the Germans torched that side of the field in the first 25-30 minutes. The U.S. was fortunate to not give up more goals before Klinsmann switched right midfielder Graham Zusi and Davis. The point is Beasley isn’t Darrelle Revis. If left on an island, he’s going to get torched by Hazard or Dries Mertens and the U.S. better make a habit of dropping a midfielder (be it Zusi or Jones) back to give him some cover.
Prediction: U.S. 1, Belgium 0. Clint Dempsey provides a second-half goal and the U.S. midfield clogs things up for the Belgian playmakers. Crazier things have happened.