U.S. v. Belgium: Analysis, Recap, and Player Ratings
The United States succumbed to a superior Belgium side in its round of 16 clash in Salvador, losing 2-1 after 120 exhausting minutes. Though Belgium peppered the U.S. goal in regulation, it took extra time for Belgium to finally beat a transcendent Tim Howard. The goals finally came, courtesy of Kevin De Bruyne and Howard’s Everton teammate, Romelu Lukaku, in the 93rd and 105th minutes. The Yanks did manage to peg one back in the 107th minute, with substitute Julian Green one-timing a beautiful chip from Michael Bradley, but could not find a way to put a second past Belgium keeper Thibaut Courtois before the referee blew his whistle on the U.S. World Cup dream.
Both coaches made surprise changes to their starting lineups. Belgium coach Marc Wilmots dropped forward Lukaku for 19-year-old wunderkind, Divock Origi. Lukaku has come in for some criticism after a series of lackluster displays during the group stage and Wilmots opted for Origi’s speed and link-up play over the brute force of Lukaku. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann benched veteran holding midfielder Kyle Beckerman for the more dynamic Geoff Cameron, who had been displaced at center back by the return of Omar Gonzalez. Though Beckerman has received praise for several solid outings, he lacks athleticism and pace. Up against Belgium’s quick wingers and the physically imposing midfield trio of De Bruyne, Marouane Fellaini, and Axel Witsel, Klinsmann opted for the athleticism and size of Cameron.
Belgium’s quality was apparent from the start. Though the possession statistics suggest a relatively even contest (U.S. 53-47 Belgium), Belgium’s 38-14 edge in shots tells a very different tale. It was only through Howard’s heroics—he made sixteen saves to Courtois’s four—that the U.S. stayed in the match. Belgium’s front three of Eden Hazard, Origi, and Dries Mertens, ably supported by attacking midfielder De Bruyne and left back Jan Vertonghen, carved out chance after chance.
Though Belgium looked the more dangerous side, the Yanks were able to trouble Belgium’s backline. Speedster DeAndre Yedlin—the 20 year-old U.S. right back/winger who subbed on for a hamstrung Fabian Johnson in the 32nd minute—has been a revelation and looked by far the team’s most dangerous player. Yedlin consistently got around and behind Verthongen (aided by Hazard’s unwillingness to track back) and put a series of dangerous balls into the box throughout the contest. And despite Belgium’s domination, the Yanks almost stole the game in stoppage time. Jermaine Jones redirected a looping ball into the box to the feet of second-half substitute Chris Wondolowski, who was unmarked, six yards from the goal, with just Courtois to beat. But Wondo, lacking the composure needed for the occasion, badly missed the target.
As has been true for much of the World Cup, the U.S. attack lacked fluidity. Jozy Altidore’s absence meant that Dempsey was once again asked to play as a lone striker, where he has struggled to make an impact. Playing with his back to the goal, Dempsey found himself manhandled by Belgium’s imposing central defensive duo of Vincent Kompany and Daniel Van Buyten. Dempsey looked far more comfortable once moved back to his traditional second-striker/attacking midfielder role after Klinsmann reshuffled the U.S. lineup in the second half by inserting forward Wondo into the game. The reshuffle also allowed Michael Bradley to drop into his natural holding midfield position. The U.S. looks a far better team with Bradley collecting the ball from the U.S. defenders and initiating attacks from deep.
Belgium’s breakthrough finally came in extra time. Lukaku, on for Origi, made an immediate impact. U.S. center back Matt Besler needlessly challenged Lukaku near the half-way line. Besler’s tired legs gave out as he was bowled over by Lukaku, who looked to be through on goal. Though chased down by DaMarcus Beasley, Lukaku’s deflected cross found the feet of De Bruyne, who side-stepped a lunging Besler and beat Howard to his far post. Belgium’s second came minutes later, as a De Bruyne slide-rule pass found a streaking Lukaku, who darted past Besler and fired a first time strike past a helpless Howard in the 105th minute.
Despite the 2-0 score-line, the U.S. pressed on, taking the game to the now-exhausted Belgians and Julian Green’s one touch finish off a lofted through ball from Bradley in the 107th minute set up a tense finish. The closest the Yanks came to equalizing came out of a neat set piece that sprung Dempsey through on Courtois. Courtois closed well and Dempsey’s shot harmlessly ricocheted off the keeper’s body. A visibly relieved Belgium squad celebrated at the final whistle.
GK, Tim Howard, 10: Man of the match performance for Howard, who recorded sixteen saves and single-handedly kept the U.S. in the game. If it weren’t for Howard’s heroics, the U.S. easily could have lost the game 4-0.
LB, DaMarcus Beasley, 5: Looked better against Belgium than he did in the group stage games. Had some trouble getting forward and Belgium substitute Kevin Mirallas looked to have the beating of Beasley in the second-half.
CB, Omar Gonzalez, 6: Was under pressure all night. Dealt with balls in the air extremely well and didn’t put a foot wrong.
CB, Matt Besler, 3: Like Gonzalez, hardly put a foot wrong in regular time, but had a nightmare extra-time. At fault for both Belgium goals, first for the needless challenge on Lukaku that led to the first goal and then getting beaten by Lukaku’s run for the second.
RB, Fabian Johnson, 4: Struggled to deal with Hazard before his injury mid-way through the first half.
CM, Geoff Cameron, 5: Made a number of important tackles and cleaned up well in front of the back four as the most defensive U.S. midfielder. Needlessly gave the ball away too many times.
CM, Jermaine Jones, 5: As always, gave 110%, but had trouble getting into the game.
CM, Michael Bradley, 6: Distributed the ball well, though looks uncomfortable playing as an attacking midfielder. Looked better in the second half and extra-time after moving into his natural, deep-lying role. Ball setting up Green’s goal in extra time was a beauty.
RM, Graham Zusi, 4: Struggled to link up with his teammates, ineffective going forward, and had difficulty providing cover for right backs Johnson and Yedlin.
LM, Alejandro Bedoya, 6: Did a fantastic job tracking back and providing cover for Beasley. Put in a number of key tackles. Did little to influence the game going forward.
CF, Clint Dempsey, 5: Struggled while isolated with his back to the goal for much of the game against Belgium center back duo Kompany and Van Buyten. Did better after dropping into the midfield once Wondo entered the fray
RB, DeAndre Yedlin, 8: The pacey right back/winger was the best U.S. outfield player. Dangerous going forward, Yedlin also did a fantastic job containing Hazard, one of the best players in the world.
CF, Chris Wondolowski, 5: Missed a sitter at the end of regular time. The U.S. did look much better with Wondo on the field, though that may have more to do with Dempsey and Bradley falling back into their natural positions than anything Wondo did.
LM, Julian Green, 7: Scored immediately upon entering the match. Looked lively and dangerous on the left, running at Belgium’s tired backline.