USMNT Report: Bracing for Belgium

Tonight’s friendly kicks off a spell of USMNT summer contests
by Herb Scribner   |   Wednesday, May 29, 2013

USMNT Report - coverage of the United States Men's National Team

Over the next 2 months, you’ll be seeing a lot more of the United States Men’s National Team.

Tonight’s battle with Belgium, which currently leads its UEFA World Cup Qualifying group, starts a 2-month medley of soccer action for the US. Not only will the USA tangle with its CONCACAF rivals, but also teams from across the globe, like the European powerhouse, Germany.

THE ROAD TO NOW: The USMNT had one of its best – and strangest – streaks last time out on the soccer pitch back in March. Following a bizarre 1-0 win over Costa Rica in a Colorado blizzard, the US earned a 0-0 draw against Mexico in Estadio Azteca. Both of those matches were World Cup Qualifiers, and put the Americans at third-place in the CONCACAF qualifying standings with Costa Rica

The US did much better in the snow and altitude than it did in its 2 earlier 2013 contests, as the Americans fell 2-1 to Honduras and found a 0-0 draw with Canada on home soil.

INJURIES AND LINEUP: USMNT manager Jurgen Klinsmann seems to be going all in with this current roster. On May 16, Klinsmann revealed his lineup for the first batch of US games. A different lineup is expected when the Gold Cup kicks off in July.

The current squad has 6 goalkeepers, including Tim Howard and Brad Guzan in the top slots. Howard’s return will be well-received, as his injuries kept him out of the March matches. The third goalkeeper position will rotate between Nick Rimando, Bill Hamid, Tally Hall and Sean Johnson, who all play in MLS, over the next few games. Johnson will get the No. 3 slot against Belgium.

Clint Dempsey was once again called into camp and will play up top with Terrence Boyd, Jozy Altidore, Herculez Gomez and Eddie Johnson.

Like many times in the past, the US midfield is loaded with potential as 10 players were called in. Notable mentions include Stuart Holden, who is back in the red, white and blue after being sidelined since 2010 with a leg injury and continuing surgeries.

Michael Bradley, Joe Corona and Brad Davis will all return to the midfield. Bradley just finished the Coppa Italia, where his AS Roma side fell 0-1 to Lazio. Similarly, Corona’s Tijuana side is locked in battle with Atletico Mineiro in the Copa Libertadores. The second leg is scheduled for Thursday, so Corona likely won’t be featured against Belgium.

For the defense, the most notable selection is DaMarcus Beasley, who, if he plays against Belgium, will have earned his 100th cap for the US.

On Monday, Maurice Edu, Corey Ashe and Brek Shea all drew out of training camp because of their respective injuries. Shea’s call-up was already considered controversial by some as his form hadn’t been at its height in recent months.

PRE-GAME CHATTER: One of the more notable names missing in the lineup is Landon Donovan, who has returned to the pitch after some time away. Still, Klinsmann says he sees a potential future for Donovan with the team.

“I see him catching up,” Klinsmann said one day after announcing the roster. “I see him getting in a rhythm, getting more games in and we’ll follow him through that. I don’t see him ready yet to come back into our group. On the other hand, I see guys in our group that are ahead of him in his position.”

Klinsmann said some of the selected players are to see where they stand and if they can continue to represent the United States, like Holden.

“We have Stuart Holden back in the mix, which we are excited about, but we also know he has a way to go,” he said. “But I think it is important for him to see that we give him this opportunity coming in, catching up and being part of our program again. I think it will give him a huge lift. Then we’ll see what he’s missing still to get back from the old player he was or even better than that.”

Despite playing matches against 2 European powers before qualifiers, Klinsmann said he isn’t worried about the effect that’ll have on his team.

“Two games give us a good opportunity to see more playing time for a couple of guys,” Klinsmann said. “A lot of them have off time, so they should be nicely rested before the Belgium game. I think 2 preparation games with a roster of 23-25 guys is totally fine.”

ANALYSIS: Klinsmann seems to be doing something that all managers should try and do: stick to his guns.

Since he’s taken the helm of the US side, Klinsmann has put an emphasis on picking players that are consistently playing for their clubs. He admitted, too, that even if a player isn’t getting minutes on the pitch, he’s still willing to test them out to see what does and doesn’t work for the US. He’s continuing this trend, sticking to the thoughts and ideals he’s spread throughout his tenure with the team.

Donovan, who recently returned to soccer, wasn’t chosen by Klinsmann for this round, and it makes sense on a couple of levels. The LA Galaxy designated player has shown brief flashes of brilliance in MLS, but he’s still coming off what was more or less an extended holiday break. Only recently did Donovan admit he felt like his old self.

It’s no question Donovan is talented and deserves a spot based on his minutes and skill. Donovan at 70% is still an excellent piece of soccer talent. But his mind may not be totally on the team. Klinsmann shouldn’t rush him back to the field. He knows what Donovan can bring and how he can play. Giving the slot to new players opens up the squad to new possibilities.

One proposed question asks how Klinsmann will feel if the US loses and is visibly a disaster without Donovan. What might be more telling, though, is how possible success in the upcoming matches would affect the team – especially without Donovan. Since the previous World Cup, talk of the USA’s future without Donovan arose as the former Everton player admitted his tiredness and his diminished enthusiasm for the game. We may finally be at the point where that question and talk gets an answer.

Off the pitch, Donovan’s absence isn’t good for US Soccer. The upcoming match against Germany is being touted as the Centennial Match to celebrate USSF’s 100th year of existence. It’s even at RFK Stadium – the stadium of Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital. Donovan’s presence would increase the exposure and glamour of the match, which would be great for the growth of the game in the States. Donovan has represented the hero of the USA soccer team since he was a teenager, and having him there for that game would have been an exceptional move.

The match against Belgium will be a good indicator of where the US is and where it is going. Belgium is leading its qualifying group – albeit tied with Croatia in point totals – and is stacked with players across all positions.

Belgium might not have the same reputation as Germany’s national team, which the US will tackle on June 2, but the team is exceptionally good. The Belgians are undefeated in 2013 after a 2-1 win over Slovakia, and were 7-2-3 in 2012. One of those results was 1-0 win over the United States, as well as a 4-2 slamming over Holland, a finalist in the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

The Belgian attack features Christian Benteke and Eden Hazard, respectively of Aston Villa and Chelsea, who will bring it right to the US defense. Benteke scored 19 goals in 34 goals for Villa and 4 goals in the 7 games he played for Belgium last year.

Hazard, meanwhile, notched 9 goals and 11 assists in his 34 EPL games. During national team duty, though, he scored 3 goals in the 9 games he started in. His fellow EPL comrade, Marouane Fellaini has done well for Everton, leading the team with 11 goals, so it'd be expected he'd have some attempts against the US as well.

Last time out against Belgium on Sept. 6, 2012, it was defender Nicolas Lombaerts that scored in the 55th minute to give the Belgians the win. Lombaerts, a defender who plays for FC Zenit, was called up for this friendly.

The Americans will have a tough time getting through Belgium’s rock-solid defense, which includes Daniel Van Buyten of Champions League winners Bayern Munich and Vincent Kompany of Manchester City. Johnson’s been a part of a reviving Seattle side in MLS – that was only cooled down by the Galaxy – so he’ll surely have the adrenaline going.

Dempsey was on form for Tottenham late in the season, and it’ll be interesting to see if that carries over into international play.

Altidore, as it’s been said for the past 2 years, has been exceptionally good in Holland. He not only was the first American export to make the Dutch Team of the Season, but also led AZ to its first KNVB title in over 31 years with his tournament-high 8 goals. He knows how to get it done for his club. He just needs the right set up in the US attack.

Zusi may be the man to help Altidore get chances, as he’s been in great form for MLS Eastern Conference powerhouses Sporting KC. So far this season, Zusi has 5 assists in his 13 games played. He’s brilliant at setting up the offense. US fans should hope for Zusi and Altidore to connect.

Sacha Kljestan and Jermaine Jones will start in the central midfield, according to Klinsmann. Kljestan has familiarity with Belgium as his club side, Anderlecht, won the Belgian league title. Much of Belgium’s roster competes outside of the country, though, so it’s an odd reason for Klinsmann to offer a spot to Kljestan, who hasn’t always been head of the class in the central midfield.

We’ll also get a good look to see if the US’ rock solid defense against Costa Rica and Mexico in March was a fluke or not. Players like Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez and Geoff Cameron did exceptionally fine then, so we’ll see if lightning can strike again.

Belgium will be a good test for the Americans. Klinsmann has brought in a collective of consistent players and fresh faces that will continue to build the US’ future. Some of the players haven’t joined the team completely yet – like Corona and Bradley – so the chemistry could be off.

Klinsmann did take a gamble by picking some of these players – and leaving one of the best American players at home – but all gambles have the potential of paying off.

NEXT UP: May 29 – Friendly: USA vs. Belgium, FirstEnergy Stadium, Cleveland. 8 p.m. EST, ESPN, UniMas.


UMass Amherst
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SN managing editor and award-winning journalist, Herb has always been known as "The Soccer Guy" wherever he goes. He's a leftback in most outdoor and indoor leagues. He also writes for Deseret News National.