The United States plays Belgium in the 2014 World Cup Round of 16 on July 1st at 4 pm. Here’s what you need to know about our new national enemies for the next half week: beyond frites, intractable politics and a truly heinous colonial record.
Dark Horse To Favorite: Belgium last qualified for a tournament in 2002. But, their “golden generation” of high-profile, Premier League stars has left many hot and bothered over their potential. Their “World Cup dark horse” train picked up so much steam over 2013 they entered the tournament as fifth favorite.
A Mystery: Questions about Belgium entering the tournament still have not been answered. Thus far, they have been much better in theory. Belgium skated through a benign group on late goals, never asserting themselves. It’s a collection of talented players, but talented players with no experience in a major tournament and little track record of replicating their club form for Belgium.
Strengths: The Belgians are robust up the middle. Thibaut Courtois may be the best goalkeeper in the world at present. Their central defense is strong. Their central midfield is both physical and adept on the ball. Most importantly, they have absurd depth of young attacking talent in midfield. They start many and can bring more on. All three goals in the first two games came from substitutes.
Weaknesses: Similar to Germany, sort of. Belgium don’t have natural fullbacks. Players there are really central defenders, meaning they could be vulnerable against speed and could struggle to overlap. Striker has also been an issue. Preferred choice Christian Benteke wrecked his knee before the tournament. Romelu Lukaku and Divock Origi are young and gifted, but don’t offer the positional and linkup play Belgium would prefer.
The King of Nicknames: Belgium’s coach Marc Wilmots was beloved as a player. At German club Schalke, he was known as Das Kampfschwei, the War Pig. In his home country, Wilmots is referred to as “Le Taureau de Dongelberg,” the Bull of Dongelberg.
Coifs: Marouane Fellaini has a giant, trademark fro. His midfield partner Axel Witsel is no slouch himself.
Outlook For the United States… The Belgians don’t have everything quite together. But, they are disciplined, hard to break down and have the firepower to torch a ragged U.S. team coming off three brutal matches. They were able to rest players during their final group match. The U.S. will be on the back foot for much of this game and struggle to control midfield. A result will come the same way the other ones have: dogged effort, limiting counter-attack exposure and converting changes. With a little bit of luck…