Today we step out of character for one column. We show our colors, on our birthday, but do so with some attempt at insight.
The USA has now qualified for seven consecutive World Cups and it is targeting 2026 as the cup they want to host, and maybe win. Some may say it is too big an objective to achieve in so short a time frame, but if you look at the program’s development over the years, its performance milestones are nothing to sneeze at. Furthermore the U.S. Soccer Federation and its coach are ambitious. Hosting the cup in 2026 would itself be a major coup, performing well at it, perhaps better than at Brazil’s, might actually be within their grasp.
The team has reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup in 2002 and the 4th place in FIFA’s rankings in 2006; they were the 12th best team in the 2010 World Cup, and in World Cup 2014 they qualified in CONCACAF ahead of co-Round of 16 contestants Costa Rica and Mexico. This year, while ranked 13th in the world, they beat their old tournament nemesis Ghana, tied Portugal (ranked 4th) and held Germany (ranked 2nd) to a single score. Today, they play Belgium (ranked 11th) with a chance to progress to the quarterfinals again, and show the world how far they have progressed under Coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
So, today’s game is important to the USA for many reasons, and progressing in the Brazilian World Cup seems only one. A convincing win against a consensus dark horse title contender would be a big step in the right direction for the USSF and its long-term development program and plans. A win would prove that it was not a fluke that the USA progressed atop the CONCACAF’s qualifiers, and it would begin to pass the torch in confidence to the post-Donovan generation, once the many team veterans retire, sometime après cup.
But they all have to put that long term perspective out of their heads and play just for today.
Belgium is playing with a rare, young player generation that is full of world class stars bent on building a reputation and a winning foundation for the future. Almost all of Belgium’s players ply their trade at major European clubs. They are of a uniformly high caliber. The USA is fielding a team with some international experience but one that has been on a rollercoaster of form. At times, the USA looks like they are about to have a break out performance, and on other occasions they look like a college team glad to be among the adults. Frankly, they have been lucky to achieve what they have so far in this cup, given their output.
This is THE world football stage, and Belgium is looking to make their mark, to make a statement, and do so at the USA’s expense. They know they have the weapons to stop USA’s attack cold and to inflict grievous damage upon Tim Howard’s goal. They will use those weapons. But, and this is critical, they do not see this game as one where they must exert their full energies. They see this game as a chance to sharpen their wares while waiting for real competition down the line. They do not see the USA as a roadblock, but as a warm-up hurdle.
What the USA has to be thinking, though, is that they have to play the toughest match they have played in years, and that includes those just played against, Ghana, Germany and Portugal. They have to play with the certainty that any lack of form, any mistake, even a slight miscue, will be severely punished in Salvador.
Today, and only today, the USA has been given a short reprieve, a golden opportunity—they do not yet have to face a super team (think Argentina or the Netherlands) with all of its weapons, instincts and experience intact, in a winner takes all match. Belgium is very good, but they are younger and less experienced than the USA. Belgium is still playing as if they are just happy to be seeded and in Brazil. They are not thinking the USA is their end of the line in this cup. They are thus vulnerable and beatable. But the USA has to be on, to a man, to win.
The discipline and focus the USA seems to lose at times has to be laser sharp today for the team to progress. With the hoped-for return of Jozy Altidore the USA has more attacking options and a chance to test the Belgian defense while keeping their offense further from Tim Howard’s goal. The play of the USA’s midfield—Michael Bradley, Graham Zusi, Kyle Beckerman, and Jermaine Jones—will be critical to the match. If they can recuperate the ball well, feed Clint Dempsey and Altidore, and support the mistake prone defense, they can make of this chance more than just a tough match for Belgium.
No one expects the USA to get off to as quick a start in this match as they did in the one with Ghana, but each player better be thinking about coming out blazing and about staying on cue for the entire match. If they do, they have a chance to progress, if they don’t, they will be embarrassed. The key to the USA’s success will be to forget about legacies, and development, and the future, but instead focus on this one game, only. Nothing can matter to each of those players but today’s match, play by play, minute by minute. They have to play as if, well, as if a loss will send them home. That is how they have previously shown they can win, and that is how they can win today.