USA soccer was supposed to be out of the World Cup by now, considering its Group of Death. But on July 1 at 4 p.m. est, the USA will be one of the last nine soccer teams left in the World Cup. Of course, the Americans would like to be one of the last eight nations standing about two hours later, although Belgium won't make it easy for them.
The last World Cup second round match will pair two squads that aren't used to this deep stage. America has only made the quarterfinals once in its modern history, back in 2002. Meanwhile, Belgium hasn't been to the round of eight since reaching the semifinals in 1986. Nevertheless, the Belgians are considered a safe favorite to change that, after winning their three first round games.
Belgium needed late goals to win each match, while the U.S. had very eventful endings against Ghana and Portugal in the first round, so this battle is bound to go down to the wire. But even if the Americans hang around, they technically hung around against Germany in their last match, yet their 1-0 defeat was misleadingly close.
USA soccer is still shaky against traditional world powers, and is still shaky in these late stages of the World Cup. Belgium isn't a traditional power like Germany, or like possible quarterfinal opponent Argentina. Regardless, this is the Belgians' best chance in decades to break through into the game's A-list.
The Americans seemed to have everything going for them in the 2010 second round, after its miracle escape in the first round thanks to Landon Donovan. But they couldn't ride the momentum and were upset by Ghana in extra time. Four years later, Donovan isn't even on the team and the U.S. has a bit less momentum and fewer expectations to advance, so maybe things will ironically work out better.
The Belgians have several players at less than full strength, including captain Vincent Kompany, while the Americans have cleared Jozy Altidore to return from his hamstring injury. Given the physical play of Belgium and the trend of 90+ minute second round games, this may be an exhausting World Cup round of 16 finale indeed.
The USA and Belgium seek to make personal soccer history starting at 4 p.m. est on ESPN.