The United States hopes to get thuggish, ruggish and to the bone as it takes on Belgium in a high-powered of friendly of sorts in Cleveland, Ohio a few days before the first of da month and the first of three critical World Cup Qualifiers.
The series is not unlike last year when the US easily faced down Scotland and then stumbled over Brazil and Canada in a friendly tune-up series on its way to a 1-0-1 record in the earlier round of qualifying against Antigua & Barbuda and Guatemala.
For the United States, little questions in terms of overall planning will likely be solved in Wednesday’s match-up. Michael Bradley is still on his way from Rome while occasional starters Maurice Edu and Brek Shea have been ruled out. Add in the trio to a roster that already didn’t include the names of Steve Cherundolo, Timothy Chandler and Kyle Beckerman for various reasons and the US is probably looking at its match-up against the Red Devils as a kick the tires on a few players and gauging point for others.
That said, beyond the individual evaluations it is getting pretty close to the time that the US must figure out how to create some good scoring chances, less even finding the frame.
The US has three shots on goal through the first three games of qualifying–two resulting in goals. That’s simply not good enough as the US begins to take on better competition and hopes that it can make a run in South America about a year from now.
Bob Bradley’s system might have called on his defenders to make emergency defending rote in the hopes of keeping a clean sheet, but at least Bradley’s high paced vertical tempo afforded the US some easy looks on goal. Jurgen Klinsmann’s system–while providing more pragmatic and, yes, better defensive protection–has demanded defensive positioning loyalty which in term has neutered any attack and made the US impotent in the final third.
The US, under the direction one of the best German strikers of all-time, has picked its spots to “drop shape” and attempt to sneak chances. Faced with high-caliber attacks or with a single defensive miscue, the US will likely struggle to find an equalizer or winner going forward against quality competition. This should keep Klinsmann and Martin Vasquez up at nights.
An improvement in forward movement and chance creation is a must Wednesday–or at least an attempt at it–if the US wants to continue to grow into a 2014 group stage challenger.
The States will face a diversely talented Belgium team where any one player has the ability to surgically force the US defense to provide cover and neglect attacking. The States–friendly or not–need to be better than that.
Without further Freddy Adu, we get to our mini-preview:
About the Opponent: Belgium
What Are We Looking For
11 At The Whistle
About the Opponent: Belgium
Play roulette with a deck of previews and the odds are still heavy that the general theme will be, “Belgium is a massively talented team–a candidate to be the next Spain–that just can’t seem to have the sum of its parts equal or exceed its whole.”
And that very much is a good narrative heading into that one. A good parallel for Belgium at this stage would be US CONCACAF nemesis Mexico. Like Mexico, Belgium is flush with youthful talent. And like El Tri, the Red Devils seem to be fumbling a bit over player selection and definite role definition in getting out their way and moving forward to international glory.
That said, unlike Mexico, Belgium is still scoring and whereas Mexico has two goals in the Hex, both on Chicharito headers and neither in the run of play–the US of course, sits on two tallies as well. Belgium hasn’t been shutout since 2011 and one look at their roster clearly shows why.
The front six reads like a Daily Mail’s columnist transfer season link bait dream roster. Names like Benteke, Lukakua, De Bruyne, Mirallas, Mertins, Hazard and more line the score sheet. Each player capable of beating his man in possession and finding netting. Aft of the front four grouping are service providers in Marounne Fellaini, Moussa Dembele and Nurnberg’s Timothy Simons deputizing for Zenit St. Pete’s Alex Witsel whose in Russia.
Behind the front six, manager Marc Wilmots (playing nickname: “Warpig”) has four near-World Class centerbacks to choose from. He’ll deploy two–Vincent Kompany of Manchester City and captain Daniel Van Buyten of Bayern Munich in the middle. Forward wandering Arsenal man Thomas Vertongen–who never met a 20-yarder he didn’t want to try and find the top corner with–will move wide to left. Incredulously, Tottenham Hotspur standout Jan Vertongen may find himself on the bench at the start of this one. US fans would froth at the opportunity to get the mobile Vertongen anywhere in the US backline. Split out right will likely be Ajax’s Toby Alderweireld, another flanker who challenged the States defense in 2012.
Belgium clearly possesses more on ball skill and robust resumes at nearly every position. However as the section opener alluded, the Red Devils haven’t been able to spin all that talent into results gold. What Belgium need to do–it would appear–is turn the keys over to a single midfielder and a single forward as the go-to guys. Too often Belgium’s game looks like three baseball players converging on a simple foul ball that’s well within reach, only to see it fall–harmfully–in between them all. All are terrific at catching the ball, yet all are not assertive enough to not defer.
The keys for the US to go for a win here–which may not be the metric Klinsmann is looking for–nevertheless go as follows:
» Belgium can be wont to go for stretches of lackluster play. The US must seize these pockets of opportunity and convert chances. Even at home, it’s a good chance that the US may not possess the ball for long stretches. The stretches where they do need to be productive.
» Manage the back flanks. Belgium will look to get their fullbacks into attacking positions after their wingers have drawn the US FBs to them. Organization in the middle (Besler, Jones being the likely quarterbacks of their respective lines) is imperative on Red Devil forward rushes.
» Frustrate Fellaini. Don’t allow Dembele to break down the defense centrally. Easier said then done here but physical play and continue harassment has seen the Everton man sometimes disappear from games. That’s the recipe for the US on the Moroccan. As for Dembele–he’s dangerous when he’s getting forward and carrying the ball into open pockets. Simply face-up defending is the tonic here.
Likely Belgium starters:
DEF: Alderweireld, Kompany, Van Buyten, Vertongen
CM-Bucket: Simons, Dembele
MF: Mertins, Fellaini, De Bruyne (De Bruyne ended the year for Werder on a tear)
What Are We Are Looking For:
• “I’m looking at the man in the mirror. I’m asking him to change his ways….”
The genius of Michael Jackson dropping our first
point question of knowledge here and it’s a simple one. A quick look at Belgium and the US is staring at a side that plays a lot like the US wants to play in terms of its tactical roll out and attacking game play. Belgium leads with a single striker up top, flanked by two would-be piercing wingers and then has a three-man midfield posse backed by two forward-pushing fullbacks.
In short, this friendly is a man-up battle of execution–which team merely outplay its counterpart. The US has struggled in these affairs. They have played superiorly at home, imposing their might on weaker opponents, while looking to stay defensively compact on the road and ride out draws.
The US is at home against a like opponent with better overall talent–can the States control the game?
• Confounded by the configurations.
Jurgen Klinsmann took a play out of the Euro and South America playbook when he named at least three starters in a new conference on Tuesday. Let’s start there.
Sacha Kljestan–oh fair Belgium be as patsy as Sweden–and Jermaine Jones will man the middle. If deployed correctly here–Kljestan as the deep-lying player maker, Jones as the forward destroyer with more box-to-box and ball-winning responsibilities–this pairing may be successful. However, States fans have seen Klinsman defer to the German Jones in situations like these to command more of the ball and distribute deeper.
Given Jones erratic play–and the necessity to keep a marauding Dembele in check–this may not be the wisest of choices. The US will likely start out as such though.
Will the Klinsmann start Clint Dempsey? If so, it says here that Graham Zusi tucking in from a wing should be the better “#10 option” while Dempsey works off of Jozy Altidore or Terrence Boyd ahead of him. Dempsey though likely starts in the playmaker role–one that any coach or fan can see Dempsey is capable of playing though it cannibalizes his true forward strengths. Regardless of role, this is a friendly and the US’s attacking play demands that focus–through tactical means or player selection means–should be put on creating chances.
• What is Geoff Cameron really giving you? This publication has long been a proponent of Cameron in central defense–with a Besler pairing–despite the Stoke City man’s lack of reps centrally for the Potters. Cameron sees the ball well in the middle and is much better at maintaining possession or carrying the ball forward if the defense dictates such than he is gallivanting up the wing. With Cherundolo going Bavarians and brats though, Klinsmann has entrusted in the right fullback role to Cameron.
It’s a role he playsat Stoke–however Stoke demand and more prudent, homeboand player in that role. How is Klinsmann positioning Cameron for a role going forward and will he use Cameron as more of a stay at home guy on the right with the uncertainty around Steve Cherundolo and Tim Chandler.
» Will Terrence Boyd make an impact this cycle? Domestically, both Chivas USA & the New England Revolution have flourished with Juan Agudelo in the target role. It’s time for Klinsmann to find out if Boyd’s 17 goals for Rapid Vienna will translate.
» Why is a player who went deep in Champion’s League and had a tough Bundesliga campaign–Jermaine Jones–starting in this one? It was a year ago that US players ran out of gas in the second half in Guatemala leading to a draw in previous qualifying round. And Jones is over the 30-year-old hump too.
11 At The Whistle:
The skinny: Fitness gauging for vets? Probably. Runouts for a few players who can maybe make a final qualifying round push? Definitely. That’s the extent of the player evaluation likely on Wednesday.
G: Tim Howard
The skinny: Klinsmann will likely give Howard the start–if he wants to signal as he has in the media–that Howard is his number. Says here that it should be an open competition with Brad Guzan now.
DEF: Geoff Cameron, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, DaMarcus Beasley
The skinny: Beasley gets his 100th cap just hop from his Fort Wayne, Indiana hometown. Cameron will have to prove the equal–defensively–of Cherundolo and Chandler by shutting down De Bruyne or Mertins. The centerback will be tested by likely summer transfer man Benteke.
CM: Jermaine Jones, Sacha Kljestan
The skinny: Will Kljestan actually get the license to show his passing prowess? Good question. Will the announcers attempt to force comparisons between Jermaine Jones’s afro and Maroune Fellaini’s far superior quaff? Yes, and it will get old.
CAM: Clint Dempsey
The skinny: Stay forward young man. Dropping deep will only confuse the German and give the Red Devils less space to defend. Dempsey needs, should work off the target man more.
RW, LW: Graham Zusi, Stu Holden
The skinny: Zusi should pull narrow while Klinsmann gives Holden the shot. Originally had Fab Johnson here, my bad).
STR: Jozy Altidore
The skinny: The Eredivisie goal leader has never been a favorite of this publication or been cast correctly in the Klinsmann system. In fact, the right role–support and wide-pulling forward–in Klinsmann’s system for Altidore doesn’t exist. It’s a continued audition for Altidore to prove his holdout player and dedication to defense.