The mindset changed for the United States men’s national team from the moment it fulfilled its group stage duties and navigated safely through the Group of Death. It isn’t enough to escape the opening round for a second consecutive World Cup. These players want to see how far they can advance into the knockout stage over the next two weeks.
Everything starts with the Round of 16 encounter against Belgium (live, Tuesday, 4 p.m. ET). There is no latitude left for defeat. It is win or go home. This magical run will either continue or end after the final whistle in Salvador.
Belgium will present a difficult challenge with its young and vibrant team, but they do possess some weaknesses. This edition of the Five Points focuses on how the Americans can overcome Belgium and reach the last eight for the first time since 2002:
1. Establish a firm base of operations (again)
USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann sagely shifted this team toward a more pragmatic deportment ahead of the World Cup. This group — for better or worse — functions best as a reactive side against teams with superior talent. There are opportunities to press higher and push out, but the shape and the structure of the team always remain paramount on the list of concerns.
The defeat to Germany to close group play reinforced how well the Americans can defend when forced to absorb pressure. They were, for the most part, defiant and organized against a dynamic opponent. The creative figures enjoyed plenty of the ball, but they labored to find a way through.
It is exactly the scenario this group must present to Belgium. There is no room here for conceding set piece opportunities or providing the Belgians with easy routes to goal. A solid platform allows the Americans to obtain a foothold in the game and provides a genuine route toward the success they crave.
2. Force Belgium to create in deeper and wider areas
The defiant base must prevent the Belgians from playing directly through the line and relying on their mobility to conjure opportunities in the final third. Algeria posed the most serious threat to the Belgians in the group stage by limiting the ability of Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard to dash through back four in one-versus-one situations or use tidy combinations to create gaps. If Belgium cannot play behind (an option Klinsmann will surely limit after watching his high line get eviscerated during a friendly between the teams last May) or through the defense, then it lacks alternatives to create gilt-edged chances.
Belgium turns into a ponderous side when prevented from establishing its rhythm in the attacking third or playing Hazard or De Bruyne into space to challenge defenders. It receives few, if any, incisive passes from central midfielders Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel. It struggles to produce decent service from the wide areas (nine of 54 crosses hit their mark during group play, per Opta statistics) given the lack of natural fullbacks in the side. It often leaves the front man — Romelu Lukaku or Divock Origi, depending on Marc Wilmots’ choice — isolated with only Fellaini — a considerable aerial threat — usually willing to make the late run to help.
If the Americans can shift Belgium away from its preferred methods, then they can blunt the potential danger and make this talented group start to wonder whether this is in fact its time to shine.
3. Instill doubt by frustrating an inexperienced opponent
Belgium gritted through its first three games like a veteran side, but this group remains untested in the biggest games. This trip to Brazil is the first major tournament for the Red Devils since the Round of 16 exit in the 2002 World Cup. Most of these young players — bar the vastly experienced Daniel van Buyten — will step onto this stage for the first time.
There is no telling exactly how Belgium will react to conceding first or finding it difficult to carve apart the American defense. They might flourish under duress. They might slog through the adversity as they did during the group stage. They might wilt. It is a response the Americans must produce one way or another to test their callow opposition.
4. Provide more support to Clint Dempsey
In order to truly place Belgium under scrutiny, the Americans must find a way to create more in the attacking half. The dogged rearguard efforts are first and foremost on the list of priorities, but they must figure out a way to create more going forward to unsettle a Belgian defense ravaged by injuries.
Dempsey once again looms as the key figure in these efforts. He links the play a bit more with Altidore now out, but he requires more support from midfield to present a threat inside the penalty area. The onus falls on Michael Bradley, Alejandro Bedoya (if he replaces Brad Davis as expected), Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones and Graham Zusi to join the play at the correct times and push out occasionally to relieve the pressure. They were unable to do so against Germany given the taxing nature of the draw against Portugal in Manaus, but the time off between matches here should prompt an upgrade in this department. Johnson, in particular, will prove important because he can peg Hazard back with his runs up the right (if Hazard tracks him) or pose issues for Jan Vertonghen if he ventures forward in a timely fashion.
The wild card, of course, is Jozy Altidore. Klinsmann said his injured striker is available for the match after recovering from a left hamstring injury, though his actual fitness remains a doubt. It is undoubtedly a risk to play him, but the circumstances may warrant a gamble depending on how the game evolves. If Altidore does enter the match at some stage, then he can free Dempsey to float into more dangerous areas.
5. Work the channels to test Belgian defenders
Dempsey will expect to operate primarily in the channels once again in a bid to exploit the lack of pace across the back four. Belgium — like Germany — deploys central defenders at fullback for want of better options. Toby Alderweireld and Vertonghen created some instability within the ranks with their positioning as they move forward and their recovering as they return to their posts. The questions surrounding the health of Vincent Kompany (groin) further increase the instability of the Belgian rearguard.
This game could open up nicely for the Americans if they can keep its shape appropriately. The possibilities to counter and test Kompany’s fitness (if he plays) will crop up along the way with the midfield group charged with spurring the team forward at the right times. Dempsey and Johnson must figure out a way to slide into those channels and tug at a back four that might just unravel.
It is an assignment within the capabilities of this American side. It isn’t easy. It isn’t straightforward. But if this group can absorb pressure and break at the right times yet again, then it can overcome this difficult examination and secure a place in the last eight for the first time in 12 years.