The U.S. men’s soccer team hasn’t advanced to the World Cup quarterfinals since 2002. It hasn’t beaten its Round of 16 opponent, Belgium, since 1930. (Belgium is 4-0 against the USA since then, including a 4-2 win in an exhibition match last year in Cleveland.)
But the Americans have already made history this year by advancing to the Round of 16 in back-to-back World Cups for the first time ever – and doing so by successfully (and improbably) navigating the so-called “group of death.”
Can the U.S. keep its remarkable run alive? Here’s what to look for as Team USA takes on Belgium:
1. Jozy’s back.
On Monday morning, U.S. soccer fans were delighted to learn that starting forward Jozy Altidore, who strained his hamstring in the first half of USA’s opening World Cup game against Ghana, should be available against Belgium.
U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann said he’s unsure how long Altidore can play on Tuesday – which suggests he may be brought on only if needed as a substitute in the second half – but if nothing else, the fact that one of the USA’s top strikers will be able to return to the field at all (and will certainly be itching to make up for lost time if he does) must be a morale boost.
2. Belgian injuries.
On the flip side, Belgium is suffering from injuries to several of its key players. Top defender and team captain Vincent Kompany suffered a groin injury in practice last week, and fellow starting defender Thomas Vermaelen pulled a hamstring in Belgium’s win over Russia. Both men missed their team’s final group match against South Korea on Thursday.
If that wasn’t bad enough for the Belgians, defender Anthony Vanden Borre has already been ruled out for the rest of the World Cup due to a broken fibula. The USA is definitely the healthier of the two squads heading into Tuesday afternoon.
3. Cracking the Belgian defense.
Even with their injury woes, the Belgians have been one of the best defensive squads in this tournament. They allowed just one combined goal in three group matches, and despite the injuries to Kompany and Vermaelen (and being down a man for the entire second half), they managed to shut out South Korea, 1-0.
The Americans were only able to muster four shots (one on goal) in their 1-0 loss to Germany on Thursday. Will those numbers prove to be a trend against an ailing but resilient Belgian team?
4. Crowd support.
The USA and Belgium have both been well-represented by fans who have traveled thousands of miles at great expense to cheer them on in Brazil. The question is: Who will the thousands of neutral Brazilian fans at the match get behind?
So far in the Round of 16, those fans have typically rallied around the underdog, including on Monday when they vocally supported a pair of African nations (Nigeria and Algeria) against a pair of European powerhouses (France and Germany). The USA figures to be at least a slight underdog heading into Tuesday afternoon, but will the Brazilians find it easy to get behind the Yanks – and if so, will it make any difference in the outcome?
5. Argentina vs. Switzerland.
If – and yes, it’s a big if – Team USA gets past Belgium, it will face the winner of Tuesday’s first Round of 16 match between Argentina and Switzerland (9 a.m. on ESPN).
The Argentinians are considered a favorite by many to win this year’s World Cup, while the Swiss – the only team to defeat eventual champion Spain at the 2010 World Cup – are a popular dark-horse pick.
If the Americans advance to the quarterfinals, they’ll take on the Argentina-Switzerland winner on Saturday at 9 a.m. on ABC15.