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USA begins summer with stern test

Watch as Jurgen Klinsmann talks about the upcoming World Cup qualifiers.
Watch as Jurgen Klinsmann talks about the upcoming World Cup qualifiers.
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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

The long, slow slog dawns here, in rainy and cloudy Cleveland, where the United States men’s national team will play Belgium in a friendly (live, Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET) that will be their first of as many as 11 games over the next 59 days.

There will be another friendly with Germany on Sunday, followed by three World Cup qualifiers against Jamaica, Panama and Honduras. After that, it’s on to the CONCACAF Gold Cup. That campaign will last at least three games, but could stretch to six, should the United States reach the final, as it is expected to.

In all, a sizable group of 26 players were called up for the first five games and two more were soon added to help handle the sheer volume of labor to be completed over a three-week span. Many more will be called for the Gold Cup, the biennial joust for supremacy of North and Central America and the Caribbean which now grants the winner a spot in a playoff with the 2015 victor for a place in the 2017 Confederations Cup.

But first, the Belgians. And what formidable foes they will make. They haven’t been to the European Championships or World Cup since 2000 and 2002, respectively, and their country has teetered on the brink of dissolution. But a new vigor in nurturing the talent washing into the country with every wave of fresh immigrants has re-made them into a budding powerhouse. With a core that’s only in its early-20s and already starring in the Barclays Premier League – Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard, Marouane Fellaini, Christian Benteke, Romelu Lukaku, Jan Vertonghen – there is no apparent ceiling for their future achievement.

“Belgium is one of the best rising teams right now in Europe,” head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said in an ornate ballroom of a hotel. “It’s a very challenging team. They’re top class players that will give us a tough test. That’s what we need, to take the measurements with those teams.”

Belgium is a prototype of sorts that Klinsmann has spoken of his desire to make the United States soccer team more of a reflection of its demographical mosaic and to capitalize on the talents of diverse American diaspora. After initial friction, that’s how Belgium forged a tantalizingly talented collective. They made the most of their country’s cultural melting pot by incorporating players of Congolese, Moroccan, Malian, Martinique and other origins. Together, Belgium have sped their way to leaders of UEFA's Group A with a 5-0-1 record.

GREAT PRETENDERS

Building up talent is simply asking for trouble. Just ask these guys.

“It’s just the way global soccer is going,” said Klinsmann. “Everywhere in the world now young talent is coming through the ranks with two passports. It’s definitely worth it when you look at all the big nations in the world, you look at Belgium and Germany and France and see what’s going on there, it’s something we have to do our homework on as well.”

Both sides will be somewhat decimated when they appear for kickoff at FirstEnergy Stadium, with the tail end of the European club season and injuries conspiring to rob the game of some marquee names.

For Belgium, Premier League sensations Hazard and Benteke carry slight injuries, although the latter might play anyway. Nicolas Lombaerts, Axel Witsel and Nacer Chadli, meanwhile, didn’t make the trip, having only just wrapped up their seasons. This nevertheless leaves Belgium with the immensely opposing potential team comprised of forwards Lukaku, Kevin Mirallas and Dries Mertens; midfielders Steven Defour, Marouane Fellaini and Moussa Dembele; defenders Tomy Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen and Thomas Vermaelen – with plenty of premier talent remaining on the sidelines.

On the American side, Maurice Edu, Brek Shea and Corey Ashe are unavailable because of injury. Edgar Castillo, Joe Corona, Fabian Johnson, Michael Bradley and Danny Williams haven’t joined the camp yet, as they too didn’t finish their seasons until this past weekend. Rights backs Timmy Chandler and Steve Cherundolo didn’t make the initial rosters because of fitness concerns.

“It’s a puzzle that we always work on that is challenging but it’s also fascinating because it’s an opportunity for the next one in line, that we always want to see,” Klinsmann said. “It gives the players opportunities to prove things to us.” That’s how the United States found its new center back pairing of Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez against Mexico. It was born of necessity and the combination was such a success that the understudies are now the incumbents. Sacha Kljestan will get his own long-overdue chance to play in his natural position when he starts alongside Jermaine Jones in central midfield in the place of Bradley on Wednesday.

This is where these friendlies at the start of a busy stretch add significant value. Because for all the progress the United States seemed to be making in a gutsy win over Costa Rica amid a blizzard in Denver back in March and a draw on Mexican soil a few days later, demonstrating a rediscovered collective willpower, the team is still worryingly thin in most positions.

With the heavy workload facing the Americans this summer, the emergence of any prospective contributors would be most welcome.

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