3 Keys for the USA vs. Belgium
Don't get caught up in too much nationalistic hype: Belgium is a very good team. The roster is chock full of high-priced stars playing for the top clubs, and it's fair to say that we haven't seen their best game so far in the tournament.
With all of that said, however, sometimes a runaway train simply cannot be stopped, and the USMNT certainly has the weight of its fan base stoking the engine. With interest in the side at an unprecedented level, let's crunch some numbers and figure out how the USA can stop the Red Devils and advance on into the quarters.
Control The Center
In basketball, having a huge big man in the center of the storm means everything. Same with hockey centers, baseball's center fielders, and, of course, the quarterback in football. It all happens in the middle, and the middle is where the U.S. has a huge advantage.
Based on stats from Opta, no team has a higher ratio of crosses to through balls than Belgium. This means that Belgium prefers to attack from the sides, ensuring that a defensive game plan for the Americans should be centered around effective marking and keeping an eye out for attacking rushers looking to head a goal from behind the play. If the U.S. can clear those balls and/or force Belgium to play inside the flanks, they've got a great chance of shutting down Belgium's preferred offensive attack.
In Jozy We Trust, Just Not Today
The U.S. has done well in Jozy Altidore's stead, and surely his talent and skill is borderline irreplaceable on the pitch for the Americans. With that said, Altidore at 50% is not worth the risk of rushing him back - outside of a late sub, perhaps - given what South Korea, Algeria, and Russia were able to show against Belgium in the group stage.
A mirror of their offensive strategy, Belgium prefers to keep attackers to the outside, heading away trouble and generally keeping the play in front of them and out wide. To best attack this, Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones must be incisive in the middle, using their vision to create shot opportunities and through balls by simple beating their defenders one-on-one. This sort of attack is simply not Jozy's strength; save him for the next round.
Avoid The Hazard
The best player on the pitch in terms of pure skill is surely Eden Hazard, the 23-year-old Chelsea wunderkind. He may be young, but he's far from inexperienced at the top level; he's already racked 47 caps for Belgium. Not only that, he's been a rock for Chelsea in the Premier League, leading the league in created chances, all without ever biting anyone!
The scariest part? He's getting better every day, and he hasn't really broken out so far in the tournament. The World Cup is designed for stars to emerge, whether it's Diego Maradona in the past or James Rodriguez in the present. The U.S. will simply have to clamp down on Hazard and not make today his day to explode.
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