It’s a different game now. The 2014 World Cup has moved into the knockout rounds and that means the United States men’s national team pivots from the advanced algebra of the group stage to a series of zero-sum equations. From here on out, only wins count.
"The way everything is set up at a World Cup, you come here thinking about the first three games, about the group stage," said midfielder Michael Bradley. "You have six months of knowing your opponents, of preparing for the first three games. There are no extra points for winning all three games. You come through the group or you don’t."
"So now you have 16 teams left and it’s simple," Bradley continued. "The tournament starts over and the margin of continuing on in the tournament and going home becomes so small. It’s a knockout tournament now. You step on the field knowing that game could be your last."
Now that the groups have given way to a bracket, the stakes ratchet up with each successive game. If the USA beat Belgium (live, Tuesday, 4 p.m. ET), they can match their best achievement of the modern era, when they reached the quarterfinals at the 2002 World Cup. Win twice and they’ll replicate their best-ever achievement, from 1930 in Uruguay, when they reached the semifinals — albeit in the first edition of the tournament, when just 13 countries bothered to enter.
The change in format requires a change in attitude. "It’s one and done," said veteran defender DaMarcus Beasley. "You’ve got to put everything out on the field and there’s no points anymore. It’s all about who wants it more and who goes to the next round. It’s just more intense."
"This is now the key going into the knockout stage: Understanding the dynamics of knockout games," added head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. "That means do or die. It’s just a completely different topic than preparing for a group stage where you always count the points. You watch the other teams how they perform, and you kind of adjust to it."
That means adjusting to Belgium, the soccer world’s new darlings for their tantalizing promise. "They’re known around Europe as one of the up and coming, really hungry and talented teams," said goalkeeper Tim Howard. "All of their players are playing in top clubs. Certain guys who are playing in the top clubs can’t even get in [Belgium’s] starting lineup."
"I think they have one of the most complete teams in the World Cup," added Beasley, the first American to play in his fourth World Cup.
There is a good bit of recent history between these sides. They played in friendlies in September 2011 and May 2013 and Belgium badly outplayed the United States in both games, picking them apart with their speed and precision. The Red Devils’ respective 1-0 and 4-2 wins hardly illustrated their superiority. Defender Omar Gonzalez, however, argues that the latter game in Cleveland last year wasn’t a fair representation. "That was a weird one," he said. "We had one training session together and then played the next day. This time around we’ll have a lot more preparation together."
That said, Belgium hasn’t had to play in the hot and humid towns the United States has, and now will again for a fourth consecutive game. Having already qualified after their second game, they also got to rest most of their regulars for the final group stage game against the Korea Republic. Still, they will be without central defender Thomas Vermaelen, who has a hamstring injury, and perhaps his partner Vincent Kompany, who will be a game-day decision. American striker Jozy Altidore, meanwhile, is available following his own injury ailment, but surely will not start.
"It will be a big battle tomorrow," said Belgium manager Marc Wilmots, lauding the Americans’ conditioning and power in midfield. "Especially physically."
Belgium can match the United States for brawn, and is comfortably the favorite for this game and expected to move deep into the tournament. They can’t lose. "That’s clear," said midfielder Axel Witsel. "It would be a big failure."
But in spite of all of the above, there is no reason for Americans to despair. They looked outmatched most of the time in the Germany game, but the team’s confidence has soared and group cohesion has made an impression on this tournament. And they can play good soccer when given they push the game high enough upfield.
Belgium, meanwhile, has hardly dazzled. Just one Belgian player had been to a prior World Cup — defender Daniel van Buyten back in 2002 — and the inexperience shows as they struggle to adapt to the vagaries of this mega-tournament. While they claimed all of the nine possible group points, Belgium’s game-winning goals came in the 78th, 80th and 88th minutes, respectively.
There is a sense now that the Americans are playing with house money, having gotten further already than most thought they might. But the players don’t accept that and neither does Klinsmann. "We’re not satisfied with just getting to the Round of 16," said captain Clint Dempsey. "We want to do more."
"Anything from now in going forward is possible," added Klinsmann. "Anything is possible, for all the teams involved in this World Cup still."
The Americans have collectively aspired to being an elite soccer nation, to being more. And more is now available to them. One game at a time.