Rio de Janeiro: The good news for the U.S. men's national soccer team is that it has some experience against Belgium, which will be its next opponent at the World Cup. The bad news: It was not exactly a pleasant experience.
Belgium beat the U.S. in Brussels in 2011 in one of Jurgen Klinsmann's first games as the coach of the national team. The Belgians dominated the Americans in May 2013 in Cleveland, winning, 4-2, in a friendly that really was not that close. (US game tailor-made for Eden Hazard to shine )
The teams that night closely resembled the ones that each country brought to Brazil: Eight of the 11 U.S. starters and nine of the Belgian 11 have started games at the World Cup this year. (Fixtures)
Still, Klinsmann said Thursday, a history that includes an unsatisfying result (or two) is better than a matchup against a team he has not seen up close.
"We are familiar," he said of Belgium. "We've played them."
Belgium won its first three games at the World Cup - including a 1-0 victory over South Korea on Thursday in its final group game - but it has not been impressive. It trailed Algeria late in its opening game before rallying with two goals in the final 20 minutes. Belgium's game against Russia last week actually put at least one fan to sleep, but Belgium escaped with a late goal resulting from a moment of brilliance by winger Eden Hazard.
Coach Marc Wilmots acknowledged after that game that his team was struggling to turn its chances into goals, and on Thursday he dropped Romelu Lukaku's power against South Korea for the more fluid talents of Kevin Mirallas, Adnan Januzaj and Moussa Dembele.
"You have to be patient," Wilmots said this week.
The danger for the U.S. is that Wilmots' talented team, a dark horse to make a deep run here, may find its rhythm. Belgium's wing players, Hazard and Dries Mertens, are a continual threat to take the ball deep and then fire in crosses for Lukaku, who has not done much with any of them - yet.
Central midfielder Kevin De Bruyne has free rein to do anything he wants up front because the sturdy tandem of Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel relieve him of nearly all defensive responsibilities.
Fellaini and Witsel protect a central defense of Vincent Kompany and Daniel van Buyten that rarely needs help. Belgium has yielded a single goal at the World Cup, on an early penalty against Algeria.
The way past Belgium, then, might be around its thick, meaty center or over the top of it. That could play into Klinsmann's plans, since striker Jozy Altidore's leg injury has forced Klinsmann to use a more midfield-centric lineup supplemented by overlapping runs by backs Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley. But as Klinsmann made clear after surviving the first round, he is happy to have that problem.
© 2014 New York Times News Service