OK, America. One more match and the U.S. is in the World Cup quarterfinals. In the way stands Belgium, a small nation of polite chocolatiers and Trappist-ale brewers that just so happens to have an all-star crew for a national soccer team.
Oh, sure. Thanks to injuries and a bit of luck. It ain’t gonna be pretty, though.
First, the bad news: Belgium is living up to its reputation as a dark-horse favorite to win the tournament after finishing the group stage undefeated, letting in all of one goal in the process. Its defense is solid and they have one hell of a goalkeeper in Thibaut Courtois, who is basically an eight-foot-tall, seven-armed monster that can see the future. Its team is littered with young, brilliant, technically gifted athletes who play at big European clubs.
The good news: Belgium might not be as good as they seem on paper, or on the pitch. Its group – Algeria, Russia and South Korea – was pretty weak (South Korea was so bad the team got loudly, weirdly shamed upon its return home), and the Belgians have yet to put on a full 90-minute display. And the Red Devils’ defense has taken a beating thanks to injuries: Thomas Vermaelen is out, and hard man Vincent Kompany is in doubt. Both are world-beating defenders and foundational pieces of the side; if Belgium is without one or both of them, well, things start looking up.
The U.S., meanwhile, hasn’t put on a head-turning performance yet, either, and the less said about the final group match against Germany the better. But making it out of the Group of Death is a big victory in itself. Goalkeeper Tim Howard’s been solid, hit man Clint Dempsey has put on a good show and the defense has been mostly organized. But the midfield’s dragging, with Michael Bradley, the team’s alleged engine, being busy yet mostly ineffective.
Also on the good news front, U.S. striker Jozy Altidore, who limped off with a hamstring injury against Ghana, has been given the green light to play. Don’t look for Altidore to start, but a late appearance as a substitute could change the dynamics of what promises to be a slow burner.
Yes, it will probably be a deliberate-if-tense match. Neither side’s going to blow the doors off early. Expect a lot of midfield skirmishing and cautious play – at first. Belgium’s capped tame matches with late goals, and the U.S. also has a knack for late drama, so hopefully that pattern continues: nobody’s going to want to go through extra time and penalties (we’re in the knockout stage, so a draw is not an option).
Kickoff is at 4 p.m. on the East Coast. No big deal if you miss the first half, but be sure to check out of the office after halftime. You can almost see it now: Altidore coming on in the 80th minute and bullying a goal to make it one-nil. You’ll want to be with people for that. Loud people.