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Belgium exposes USA weaknesses

Clint Dempsey
The United States were crushed by Belgium in a friendly on Wednesday.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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CLEVELAND, OHIO

ROCKED AND ROLLED

Check out all the action from USA's friendly against Belgium

On a balmy night in a half-filled FirstEnergy Stadium on the banks of Lake Erie, the weather was pleasant and the atmosphere genial. Oh, and the talismanic Stuart Holden made his return after a two and a half-year injury ordeal. And that completes the list of positives the United States men’s national team could take away from their friendly against Belgium here on Wednesday.

In a disheveling one-sided game-cum-clinic, the Belgians came away with a 4-2 win which, frankly, flattered the Americans, so thorough had been the trouncing. Even without two of their better players, Eden Hazard and Axel Witsel, the enviably deep Belgians overmatched and outplayed the USA at every single position. Where their possession of the ball had been protective and purposeful, the Americans were unacceptably wasteful with it.

“We annoyed them by taking them on one against one and playing high,” explained Belgium head coach Marc Wilmots.

“Certainly we will talk about those turnovers, a lot of balls lost too easy and too fast,” said USA manager Jurgen Klinsmann. “Which makes you run behind it and lose energy.”

The United States, in fairness, were without its best ball handler Michael Bradley and its preferred wing backs. But it would hardly have mattered.

To the consternation of many, Klinsmann chose to break up the makeshift Matt Besler-Omar Gonzalez center back pairing which had unexpectedly and sensationally succeeded in keeping wave after wave of Mexican attacks at bay during the 0-0 World Cup qualifier in Mexico City in March. The underwhelming Clarence Goodson was inexplicably back in the lineup beside Gonzalez.

And for that reason or perhaps another, the defense was very much culpable for Belgium going ahead in just the sixth minute of play. Kevin De Bruyne simply sprung Romelu Lukaku through the gaping chasm between the defenders. Tim Howard interfered well, throwing himself in the way, but the rebound rolled out to the unmarked Kevin Mirallas, who deftly dinked the ball into the vacant net.

Belgium slowed up after that, leisurely holding the ball and pressing less aggressively when the USA won the ball back, presumably safe in the knowledge that the Americans would cough it up just as soon as they caught sight of the Belgian goal anyway. The Americans insisted on ruining solid buildups by misdelivering passes for no apparent reason, hanging their heads in frustration. Bradley and his tidy distribution were much missed, forcing Clint Dempsey to drop deep from his forward spot, which left striker Jozy Altidore isolated up front and badly outnumbered by the burly Belgian back line.

His counterpart Lukaku, the 20-year-old man-child, gave the American defense fits with his strength, speed and impossibly soft feet. Had he been serviced more zealously by his wingers and midfielders, the Belgians could have run up the score earlier. For a long time, it seemed as though this immensely talented young bunch could put this game away with a zippy break-away or two if only it could bestir itself to. But the USA somehow remained in the game and equalized with their only shot of the first half, when Dempsey headed a Graham Zusi cross back across goal for Geoff Cameron to nod in at the other post.

Belgium continued its dominance apace after the interval. The USA, to its credit, did try to knock the ball around when they had it, but they invariably found Belgians in the path of routine passes.

And then the defensive gaffes began to pile up in the American half. Gonzalez cleared right into the feet of De Bruyne, who fed the wide open Christian Benteke for the go-ahead goal. De Bruyne found Marouane Fellaini’s expansive and unmarked afro at the end of his long cross to make it 3-1. And then Steven Defour clipped a ball over the top to hand Benteke the fourth.

In an act of altruism, Costa Rican referee Jeffery Solis took pity on the USA and gave it a late penalty in spite of the ball striking Toby Alderweireld’s arm while firmly clutched to his waist. Dempsey converted. But Solis wouldn’t be so generous with Belgium at the other end, denying them the same courtesy when Benteke was obviously tripped up in the box.

“I saw a penalty,” said Wilmots. “But in the end, whether it ends 4-2 or 5-2 makes little difference.”

Indeed, it was irrelevant. The USA was undressed and paraded around with all its weaknesses and inadequacies prone. All Klinsmann could do was look on, unemotive and powerless. But after the game, he was breezy as ever. He doesn’t let this sort of shellacking get him down.

“It was obviously a bad result,” he said. “But I think we saw a lot of things that we wanted to see and we take it the way it is.” Asked to name three positives, however, Klinsmann had no answer at the ready.

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Rather than being negative, Klinsmann spun the exercise as educational. “I’d rather play Belgium ten more times than El Salvador the hundredth time,” he said. “Because that’s where you learn.”

In the mixed zone, the players downplayed any deleterious effect this night of malpractice might have on the team’s spirit. “It doesn’t change the mood,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “It’s a long road between now and [the World Cup qualifier on June 18 in] Salt Lake City. We’re disappointed but we’ll lick our wounds and come back against another top team in the world.”

Germany is next, in another friendly in the nation's capital on Sunday. And nine days remain until Jamaica, when the USA have to get it right. Because a threesome of World Cup qualifiers is on the docket, and those games actually matter.

Mercifully for the USA, this one didn’t.

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