Photo courtesy of Bleacher Report
By Saeed Ahmed
(CNN) — OK, so the U.S. lost to Germany, but still squeezed through to the next round. No shame in that. But nothing to be too proud of either.
But the game today? This is do or die. This is one and done. This is all or nothing.
This is whatever cliche you can think of to rouse your team spirit.
If the U.S.-Germany match was a battle of David and Goliath, this afternoon’s encounter is David and the Dark Horse.
And Belgium, we hate to tell you, ain’t no one trick pony.
The game’s at 4 p.m. ET — enough time for you to skim through this cheat sheet and become an insta-pundit.
Why you should care
It’s about time soccer caught on in the U.S.
And in order for that to happen, Americans need a team they can really rally behind.
If the boys can beat Belgium, it’s off to the quarter finals of the World Cup. The last time the men’s team did that was in 2002. (They lost to South Korea.)
The expectations are enormous. When was the last time you saw the country unite behind one cause, gather in front of massive TV screens, and collectively bellow, “I believe that we will win”?
At home, 25 million people watched the USA nearly slay Portugal last week. Twenty five million! That’s more than what the NBA finals or the baseball World Series averaged.
In Brazil, Americans are second only to the host nation in the number of tickets bought.
Online, Twitter and Facebook are blowing up.
Soccer, you see, is starting to stir the soul of America.
“The country is paying attention in a way that it’s never done before, and we have a chance to make some history,” said Sunil Gulati, the U.S. Soccer Federation president.
It’d be a shame if the plucky Yanks lost to Belgium, killing the momentum.
How it has played out before
When the U.S. last played Belgium at the World Cup, it beat them 3-0. But that was 84 years ago — in 1930! More recently, the teams played two “friendlies” (matches that aren’t part of a tournament). The U.S. lost both.
Why you should worry
You don’t hear Belgium mentioned in the same breath as soccer powerhouses like Brazil, Argentina or Germany.
That’s because it isn’t.
It plays a boring brand of soccer. Cautious. Tentative. Patient.
”I am here to be a realist,” their coach, Marc Wilmots, says. “I am not here to please the fans in the stands.”
But Belgium wins games.
It qualified for the World Cup, winning eight out of 10 games. (It drew the other two.) At the tournament, it’s won all three of its games, conceding only one goal.
Another reason: The Red Devils are young and hungry. Eleven of their players are in the prestigious English Premier League. Six of the Americans play there.
Why you shouldn’t worry
Un: The Belgians are banged up.
Captain Vincent Kompany can’t seem to shake a nagging groin injury. So he’s iffy for the game.
Kompany is one of Belgium’s key defenders. A second starting defender has a hamstring strain.
Without those two, the goal scoring potential increases for the U.S.
And they’re not the only ones battling injury. There’s one guy with a broken leg, another with a groin strain, another with muscle tightness.
Deux: Jozy Altidore will be back for the U.S. Since he was sidelined with a hamstring injury in the U.S opener against Ghana, Clint Dempsey has had to go it alone as the main goal scorer. Altidore returns to the potent partnership.
Trois: There’s something to be said for experience. And the U.S. has four players who are World Cup veterans (Howard, Dempsey, DaMarcus Beasley and Michael Bradley.) They know how to deal with the pressures of competing on soccer’s biggest stage. The Belgians? The last time they were at a World Cup was 14 years ago.
“We have absolutely no fear at all,” U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “We believe we have built a foundation in our team that we are able to beat them, and we’re looking forward to it.”
What you should ignore
The fact that the referee is Algerian. Ever since FIFA picked Djamei Haimoudi for the match, the comments have poured in: “We’re toast.” Why? Because the USA knocked Algeria out of the 2010 World Cup with a 1-0 victory.
Klinsmann’s got a second reason: He seems to think that the fact that the ref speaks French gives the Belgians an edge.
“Is it a good feeling? No,” he said. “He’s able to speak French with their players on the field, not with us. And it’s the country that we beat in the last second of the last World Cup.”
Will Haimoudi hold a grudge? Hogwash.
He’s refereed the Netherlands-Australia game and the England-Costa Rica game without complaints from fans or critics about wrong calls.
“It is looking for excuses ahead of the match,” Belgian coach Wilmots said.
What the U.S. should do
Attack, attack, attack! In the last three games, the boys attacked just 72 times, says FIFA. You know where that places the USA among the 32 teams at the World Cup? Dead last!
Today, the natural tendency of the team might be to hunker down, ward off the inevitable Belgian onslaught, and make a run for the goal when chances open up.
This isn’t the group round. You lose here, you’re out.
All of Belgium’s goals have come in the last 20 minutes of games, making it hard for the opposing team to equalize.
So the U.S. needs to go at it guns blazing. Yes, the Red Devils have won their World Cup games so far, but they never quite dominated. Overwhelm them.
What you should say
Here are some fun facts to impress your buddies at your soccer watching party:
Fun fact #1: Before he became Belgium’s coach, Marc Wilmots served in the country’s senate for two years.
Fun fact #2: Belgium’s most notable contribution to cinema is Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Fun fact #3: Waffle House is calling for a ban on Belgian waffles. That’s not even a Belgian invention. Oof!
Fun fact #4: Brussels sprouts actually do get their name from the Belgian capital.
Fun fact #5: Clint Dempsey has another goal: to make it as rapper Deuce. His 13-track album, “The Redux,” comes out after the World Cup.
Who will win
The folks at FiveThirtyEight give the U.S. a 42% chance of winning.
The Belgian coach pegs his team’s chances at 50-50.
The U.S. quotes Abraham Lincoln: “The best way to predict your future is to create it.”
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