As soon as the US Men's National Team advanced out of its "Group of Death" Thursday, the widespread assumption was that the Americans would take on Belgium in the Round of 16. As Group G runners-up, the US was bracketed to take on the winner of Group H, and entering Thursday's final round of matches the Red Devils were overwhelmingly likely to take top spot in the latter.
A first-half red card to midfielder Steven Defour meant things wound up much, much dicier than expected for the Belgians. But South Korea could not find a goal against coach Marc Wilmots' 10 men and the 1-0 win was enough to top the group, sending Belgium on to face the US.
So with the matchup confirmed, it's time to ask: who is Belgium? What's the least US World Cup watchers should know about them? Here's a primer:
They're immensely talented. That Belgium was ranked 12th in the world according to FIFA entering the tournament and awarded the top seed in Group H should give you some idea about how much is expected of this team based on its galaxy of European club stars; that many bookmakers listed their odds as the fifth-shortest in the tournament (behind only Brazil, Germany, Spain and Argentina) should give you an even better one.
The Belgian starting 11 includes Eden Hazard, the young Chelsea playmaker that ranks among the Premier League's best players; Manchester City's Vincent Kompany, universally admired as one of the world's better central defenders; there's Wolfsburg midfielder Kevin De Bruyne, Everton striker Romelu Lukaku, Zenit St. Petersburg midfielder Axel Witsel ... you can't throw a rock at Belgium's lineup without hitting a player commanding an eight-figure sum on the European transfer market.
But they haven't quite played like it yet. Belgium rested most of those stars for the South Korea game, but even with a full lineup they made hard work of breaking down Algeria -- who they trailed 1-0 at the half before scoring two goals in the final 20 minutes -- and defensive-minded Russia. In defense, Kompany and, uh, company were more than up to the task (left back Jan Verthongen's bizarre penalty give-away vs. Algeria excepted), but Hazard drifted in and out of both games and Lukaku offered shockingly little up front.
The overarching impression was of a team that hasn't yet found the team cohesion to match its individual quality.
The US will be an underdog, but doesn't have anything to fear. Particularly if the four-day rest between Thursday and Tuesday can help get the US's legs back and Michael Bradley rediscover his missing first touch, the match shapes up as a cagey one. The US will likely deploy its now-usual 4-2-3-1 with both Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones disrupting the middle of the field, while Witsel and De Bruyne will attempt to keep possession and spring Hazard and possibly Dries Mertens into space. Neither team will likely do much pressing high up the field until a goal is scored.
On paper, the Belgians are the clearcut favorites, but the way their offense sputtered early in the group stage, the US will feel good about its chances.
What advantages will Belgium have against the US? Beyond the fact that the US just doesn't have a player like Hazard who can win the game in a singlehanded moment of brilliance, the Belgians will arrive in Salvador as the vastly fresher team; not only were they able to rest most of their starters in their third group match, they played their matches in the southern -- viz. much, much cooler -- half of Brazil. Belgium have also shown a habit of scoring late after bringing one substitutes from their aforementioned oceans-deep roster.
If the US can't forge a lead to protect in the game's first hour, or see the game go into extra time, things could end poorly.
What advantages will the US have over Belgium? Beckerman's and Jones's incredible work have meant that teams have struggled to generate any kind of offense in the center of the field against the US, and have had to resort to wing runs, crosses and (in Germany's case) set pieces to find their goals. Though Hazard is adept at drifting out wide, Vertonghen's struggles and the relative lack of impact from probable starter Toby Alderweireld at either wingback position in Belgium's four-man defense mean the Red Devils could wind up very narrow in attack -- which is just how the US likes it.