Belgium and the U.S. had quite different experiences advancing to the round of 16, although fans of both teams probably lost a good bit of sleep along the way.
Belgium advanced cleanly at the top of its group with three wins, but each came on late second-half goals. The U.S. moved on in a nail-biting manner unique to soccer — without winning, exactly.
The U.S. opened with a gratifying 2-1 victory over Ghana, which had eliminated the U.S. at the 2006 and 2010 World Cups. Clint Dempsey (1’) scored about as early as possible, then John Brooks (86’) sealed the deal late.
So far, so good, especially with the two-time spoilers out of the way.
Then came a draw with Portugal. The U.S. looked poised to win, 2-1, and guarantee its advancement out of the Group of Death, but Christiano Ronaldo set Silvestre Varela up with a cross for an extra-time score.
A tie for both, a win for uncertainty and last-day-of-group-play drama.
On that last day, the U.S. lost 1-0 to Germany but could celebrate anyway, as it beat Portugal on goal differential to advance. It wasn’t a graceful dive to the finish, but the U.S. made it all the same.
Belgium, on the other hand, ensured its advancement with a win in its second game, 1-0 over Russia. The only suspense in their final game against South Korea would be whether or not the team could secure the top seed in Group H and avoid a likely matchup with Germany.
But Belgium had its share of scares over the course of the three group-stage games. Sofiane Feghouli spurred Algeria to a 1-0 lead on a penalty kick in the 25th minute, and the lead lasted until Belgium’s Marouane Fellaini countered in the 70th minute, five minutes after he entered the game.
Ten minutes later, Dries Mertens, another sub, scored the game-winner.
Against Russia, Belgium waited until the 88th minute when Divock Origi, 19, played the hero. Belgium won, 1-0, on the first goal by a teenager at the World Cup since Lionel Messi’s in 2006.
When Jan Vertonghen scored in the 78th minute versus South Korea, he won the game and the group for Belgium and extended his team’s streak of winning late.
Belgium has maintained some semblance of control on its wild ride by owning the possession game. Belgium had possession for 65% of the match against Algeria and 52% against Russia, losing the advantage only to South Korea with 49% of the possession time.
The U.S., in contrast, lost the possession edge in each of its group-stage matches. The team turned in its worst performance against Germany, possessing the ball for 37% of the game compared with 63% for Germany. Ghana also beat the U.S. on possession 59%-41%, and Portugal gained a slight advantage, 52%-48%.
Belgium and the U.S. play today at 1 p.m. PDT in Salvador, Brazil.
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