On Wednesday, the U.S. Men’s National Team opens a five-game stretch with an international friendly against Belgium at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio (8 p.m. on ESPN, WatchESPN, UniMas). Following that game, the U.S. plays Germany in a friendly match on June 2, then continues with World Cup Qualifying matches against Jamaica on June 7, Panama on June 11, and Honduras on June 18.
The U.S. and Belgium have played only four times previously, and never in the States. In those games, the U.S. has three losses and only one victory—in 1930 in the first World Cup. With home field advantage but a not-yet-fully assembled squad, and relatively few practice sessions under their belt, the U.S. players will face a stiff test against a Belgian team on the rise.
Belgium’s only major tournament victory came in 1920, when the team won the gold medal as host of the Olympic Games. The Belgians also won bronze in the 1900 Olympic Games in Paris, France. Since that time, the Belgians have been stalwart competitors but rarely challenged for honors, though they came in second in the 1980 European Championship in Italy and fourth in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. More recently, they failed to qualify for the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, as well as the last three European Championships.
Don’t let that paint an unnecessarily negative picture, however. Belgium is a country approximately the size of Massachusetts and with a population of about 11 million people, which is a bit less than the populations of New York City and Los Angeles combined. Yet Belgium is currently ranked an all-time high of 15 in the FIFA list and has produced an increasing number of world class (or close to it) players in recent years playing for top teams in European football—Eden Hazard, Thomas Vermaelen, Marouane Fellaini, Jan Vertonghen, Vincent Kompany—as well as rising stars like Mousa Dembélé, Axel Witsel, Kevin Mirallas, Christian Benteke, and Romelu Lukaku.
All of those players are in the Belgian squad for Wednesday’s game, and all of them can hurt the U.S. in different ways.
Since announcing the initial roster for these games, there have been several changes due to injury. Most recently, Maurice Edu withdrew, citing a sports hernia. Others, like Fabian Johnson (whose Hoffenheim team secured its place in next season’s Bundesliga by defeating Kaiserslautern in the relegation playoffs), have yet to arrive.
However, most of the presumed first-choice starting eleven are present and ready for selection. The primary selection question is once again who plays at left back, with DaMarcus Beasley and Michael Parkhurst the only possibilities. Parkhurst is primarily a right back, so Beasley is in pole position to return to his role as emergency fill-in, as he did so well against Costa Rica and Mexico.
Few other experiments seem likely. Though, in what is a relatively low-pressure game, National team returnee Stuart Holden may appear. Also, Sacha Kljestan’s experience in the Belgian league (his Anderlecht team just won a second consecutive Belgian league championship) may warrant his inclusion in the starting lineup.
Belgian’s defense is stout, and its front six is both skillful and bruising. If the U.S. hopes to prosper, it will have to be very efficient offensively, as goal-scoring chances will be few and far between, and it will have to contain the likes of Lukaku, Hazard, and Fellaini, all of whom are coming off excellent individual seasons in the English Premier League.
While the U.S. has the firepower in Eddie Johnson, Clint Dempsey, and Jozy Altidore to hurt the Belgians, the still-gelling U.S. back line will be hard pressed to keep Belgium off the board. While the game is likely to be physical, it may be a moment of brilliance from one of the Belgian skill players that breaks the deadlock.
Prediction: USA 1–2 Belgium.