U.S. isn’t the favorite against Belgium but maybe that’s a good thing

U.S. players (from left to right) Jermaine Jones, Brad Davis, Jozy Altidore and Kyle Beckerman take part in a training session Monday in preparation for Tuesday's World Cup elimination match against Belgium.
(Ali Haider / EPA)

This World Cup hasn’t been kind to favorites.

Spain, the world’s top-ranked team, went out in the group stage.

Brazil and Costa Rica needed penalty-kick shootouts to win their second-round games, and the Netherlands needed just one penalty kick, in stoppage time, to beat Mexico. And No. 2 Germany needed extra time to get past Algeria.

U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann hopes that trend continues Tuesday when his team plays its first elimination-stage game against unbeaten Belgium.

“Anything from now going forward is possible,” Klinsmann said Monday. “Anything. For any team.”

Or for any player. U.S. striker Jozy Altidore, who appeared to be done with the World Cup when he was carried off the field in tears after straining his hamstring 21 minutes into the Americans’ tournament opener, will be available to play Tuesday.


Altidore is unlikely to see much, if any, playing time against Belgium. But that’s not the point. By activating him, Klinsmann, a master motivator, is pushing his message: Anything is possible.

Three weeks ago Klinsmann was saying the U.S. couldn’t win the World Cup. Now he’s telling his players to change their families’ flights home to July 14, the day after the final.

“The sky is the limit,” Klinsmann preached Monday. “We just have to get over one hurdle after another. And [Belgium] is a very big hurdle.”

The U.S. played well in group play but won just once after giving up a lead to Portugal in the final seconds, then holding powerful Germany to a goal in a 1-0 loss.

Belgium has played poorly but won its three group-stage games behind a goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois, who has allowed only a penalty-kick score here.

Belgium came to Brazil among the tournament favorites. The U.S. wasn’t expected to make it out of group play.

Belgium should win Tuesday. But Klinsmann has the U.S. believing it can win.

“We’re not satisfied with getting to the round of 16. We need to do more,” said U.S. captain Clint Dempsey, who has two of his team’s four World Cup goals. “It’s a different game in the knockout stage. Anything can happen. It’s about showing up on the day.”

Well, there’s a little more to it than that.

The U.S., the worst attacking team in the tournament according to FIFA’s statistics, will have to push forward against Belgium. And after losing the possession battle in all three of their first-round games, the Americans will have to do a better job of holding onto the ball too.

But this will be a different kind of game than either team played in the group stage. There, if a team has a bad game, it can rebound, win the next one, and still go on. The knockout stages are single-elimination — lose and you’re out. Even if it takes extra time and penalty kicks to sort that out.

“A new tournament is on,” Belgium Coach Marc Wilmots said. “There are no calculations. It’s 90 or 120 minutes or penalties. It’s a crossbar or post. You never know what’s going to happen.”

Few know that better than Wilmots. In the 2002 World Cup round of 16, he scored a first-half goal against Brazil that was disallowed, mistakenly. Referee Peter Prendergast apologized for the error at halftime but Belgium, which would have been leading, had little margin for error.

So when Belgium gave up two late goals it was eliminated while Brazil went on to win the title.

“There’s nothing worse than being eliminated on a decision,” Wilmots said.

But if Wilmots is fearing another game that turns on one play, Klinsmann appears to be embracing the idea. The U.S. won’t win a slugfest with Belgium but, with temperatures expected to be in the 80s with a humidity level about the same, it could win a game that comes down to heart, determination and motivation.

At least that’s what he’s hoping for.

“Every single player has to be ready to go 120 minutes,” Klinsmann said. “That’s what we’ve been working for. We worked hard to build a foundation to go 120 minutes.

“We have a great spirit in the group. We feel like we’ve just started this adventure. We are hungry. We are hungry for more.”