After qualifying from a group featuring two major European powers, the USA will be hopeful of again upsetting the odds when they take on Belgium in Salvador on Tuesday in the round of 16 (4pm EST, live on ESPN).
The USA progressed from Group G at the expense of Portugal following a narrow 1-0 defeat to Germany on the group’s final match day. Victory over Ghana and a draw against the Portuguese was enough to see them through in second place on goal difference.
The USA conceded more shots than pretty much any other team during the group stage, but the average quality of the shots they conceded was relatively low. That suggests that aside from errors like those that provided Portugal with two goals, the USA are relatively good at blocking obvious routes to goal.
The most impressive aspect of the USA so far has been the energy of their midfielders. Jermaine Jones (pictured) has been a force of nature alongside the more economical Kyle Beckerman, while Michael Bradley has worked hard in his defensive duties despite not providing much of an offensive spark. He covered more ground than any other player during the group stage.
The main deficiency in the USA’s play has been their lack of threat in the final third. The frequent forward runs of right-back Fabian Johnson have caused problems for opposing defences, but while Clint Dempsey does have two goals to his credit, he has often been starved of both service and support. Jurgen Klinsmann has recognised the need for his side to play more of their football in the opposition half going forward.
Klinsmann remains hopeful that striker Jozy Altidore will be fit to play a part against the Belgians. Altidore was taken off with a hamstring injury during the first half-hour of the USA’s opening match against Ghana and is yet to play any further part in the tournament. Beckerman, Jones and Omar Gonzalez are all one yellow card away from a suspension.
Belgium reached the last 16 by topping Group H with an unblemished record of nine points from three victories. Algeria followed them through in second, with Russia and South Korea falling by the wayside.
Marc Wilmots’ side have not been wholly convincing, but three winning goals scored within the final quarter-hour of play have been sufficient to see them record three, single-goal victories. They conceded just four goals in 10 matches during the qualifying process and have carried that defensive solidity into the World Cup itself, conceding just once.
Wilmots has made good use of his bench, with three of Belgium’s four goals scored by substitutes. His quick and decisive substitutions have, however, largely come after lacklustre first half performances from his starting XIs. Belgium have often looked like a collection of individuals bereft of a coherent tactical approach, but perhaps that is just what they are.
With one of the world’s best goalkeepers in Thibault Courtois and a defence made up of four centre-backs, Wilmots has a strong base that allows him to be more experimental with his forward options. He can afford to rotate through attacking players as a match progresses until the right combination is found. One goal is usually enough for victory.
Steven Defour will be suspended for Tuesday’s match after being sent off in the victory over South Korea, while Wilmots will also be without the injured Anthony Vanden Borre (cracked fibula) and Laurent Ciman (groin). In addition, both Vincent Kompany (groin) and Thomas Vermaelen (hamstring) are doubtful.
USA vs Belgium Betting Picks Verdict
These two sides have met on five previous occasions, with Belgium recording four victories to the USA’s one. The USA triumphed when they last met in a World Cup, winning 3-0 during the group stage of the inaugural tournament in 1930. More recently, Belgium won 4-2 when the sides met in an entertaining friendly match in Cleveland, Ohio last May.
Tuesday’s match is unlikely to be a repeat of that encounter. Belgium have been strong in defence during the World Cup and seem content to keep matches tight and rely on one of their array of attacking midfield and forward options to score the decisive goal. They will hope to find space in behind the USA full-backs on the counter-attack.
The USA have struggled to create high-quality chances, although the strength of their group stage opponents has obviously conditioned both their approach and output to date. They will battle away gamely in midfield and will certainly not make things easy for Belgium.
We expect this to be a match decided by fine margins and would not be at all surprised to see it go to extra time and penalties before a victor is declared.