After a lackluster performance against Germany, the U.S. head to the Round of 16 to face the hipster’s favorite: Belgium (3pm CT on ESPN/Univision). The lowlanders have yet to hit the heights everyone was expecting, but did make it through their relatively easy group with nine points.
The U.S. will need to put in a Portugal-like effort against Belgium to have a chance to get through to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2002. Here are some things to look out for form a tactical perspective.
Jozy’s return – Will Klinsmann decide to play his strongest XI from the start?
The big news in the U.S. camp over the past few days has been the return to fitness of Jozy Altidore. After going down in the first game against Ghana with a hamstring injury, Jurgen Klinsmann has since decided to start with Clint Dempsey as a lone striker, instead of playing more out and out forwards like Chris Wondolowski or Aron Jóhannsson.
Michael Bradley has also been asked to play in the role that Dempsey started in against Ghana, namely playing advanced in the hole.
The return of Jozy poses a tough question for Klinsmann with the manager being quite cautious in his selections to date. Against Ghana, a positive result was needed, thus the reason to play both Dempsey and Altidore.
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We will never know what Klinsman would have done against Portugal and Germany if Altidore was fit, but I would argue that he would have still started formations that packed the midfield.
Starting Altidore today would push Bradley back into a more central midfield role with Dempsey playing ahead of him. The odd player out would probably be Brad Davis, with Jones shifting wide. \
These moves would continue with the theme of defending narrowly, which makes sense against a team possessing such strong creative players such as Kevin De Bruyne, Dries Mertens and Eden Hazard.
If Altidore can’t go from the start, I expect to see Alejandro Bedoya back in the starting XI, to provide more defensive cover and a quicker counter attacking threat than Davis.
Cameron or Gonzalez – who partners Matt Besler at center back?
Another huge decision for Klinsmann today will be who to start at center back. After Geoff Cameron’s early mistake coupled with Silvestre Varela’s last second free header in the Portugal match, Klinsmann decided to make a chance for Germany and brought in Omar Gonzalez.
The LA Galaxy defender put in a strong performance against Germany, especially in the air, where he won header after header, notably after Miroslav Klose came on. Belgium only play with one target striker but are very good in the air, especially when Marouane Fellaini gets forward from his holding midfield position.
With set pieces in mind, I can also see why Klinsmann may stick with Gonzalez, with the treats of Vincent Kompany, Daniel van Buyten and Jan Vertonghen getting forward from the back. Knockout games are often decided by set pieces and the size of the Belgian team, coupled with world class deliveries from Hazard and co., make this aspect of the game crucial.
Adjusting tactically to the Belgian subs – playing the waiting game and adjusting accordingly
To date in the tournament, Klinsmann has adjusted very well tactically, most notably by bringing on DeAndre Yedlin in the Portugal and Germany matches both to provide defensive cover, but also pace on counter attacks.
With Belgium’s riches of talent on the bench and Mark Wilmots’ inability to work out his best XI, it wouldn’t surprise me if the US coaching staff waited to see what substitutions Belgium make before adjusting accordingly, especially if the match is still level.
Belgium have the ability to change things completely in the attack, whether it be bringing on size in the shape of Romelu Lukaku , pace in the form of Adnan Januzaj or directness in the mold of Kevin Mirallas. Obviously if the U.S. are in need of a goal, what Belgium are doing is irrelevant, but what will be most interesting is if the U.S. takes the lead of the match is still deadlocked in the second half.
This match is without doubt Klinsmann’s biggest challenge as US manager to date and if he gets the tactics wrong, there will be much scrutiny from the expectant U.S. fan base.
Prediction: 1-1 with the U.S. winning on penalties!
WATCH: Jeff & Kevin preview U.S. vs. Belgium