CLEVELAND – Two months removed from one of their greatest showings in a US national team jersey, Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler are ready for more, and gearing up for what is sure to be one of the toughest tests of their young international careers.
Though the USMNT’s 0-0 draw with Mexico at Estadio Azteca game brought the pressure of qualifiers, not to mention the fury of the crowd in the toughest venue on the continent, Belgium will present an entirely different challenge – a European power on the rise that boasts one of the most talented rosters of players on its own continent (Wednesday, 8 pm ET, ESPN/UniMas, live chat on MLSsoccer.com).
With the likes of Romelu Lukaku – an incredible athlete even by Premier League standards, not to mention a lethal goalscorer – and Christian Benteke, who netted 23 times in all competitions in his first season with Aston Villa – leading the forward line for the Rode Duivels, Gonzalez, Besler and whoever else lines up on US backline will face a test like few others they’ve confronted on the international stage to date.
Is it the toughest team Gonzalez has faced in a USMNT jersey?
“It might be one of them,” the LA Galaxy defender told reporters after the US trained here at FirstEnergy Field on Tuesday. “But I think those qualifiers that I’ve been a part of first of all have been a great test for me and they’ve been great opponents as well.”
The 26-year-old Besler (above), who’s played just twice for the US – at the Azteca and in a friendly against Canada – called it “one of the hardest games I’ll have played.”
And while any US fan or player will tell you that the likes of Mexico, Honduras and Costa Rica are no slouches, it’s hard not to marvel at a Belgian roster that contains players that have not only played, but won silverware in both domestic and continental competitions in Europe.
“I expect a very tough matchup from them,” Besler told reporters. “They have a lot of talent, a lot of guys playing in the top leagues in Europe. Attacking-wise, [they have] a lot of dangerous players, especially one-v-one.
“For us as a team, we’re going to try and limit those opportunities where they find themselves in space and we’re taking it very seriously, it’s a prep game for the qualifiers.”
Of course, it’s no certainty that Besler and Gonzalez, who have earned eight caps between them, will even get the call to start against Belgium, with Clarence Goodson and Geoff Cameron also in the mix.
In Tuesday’s training, Gonzalez and Goodson anchored a back four in a short-sided scrimmage that saw DaMarcus Beasley – who USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has said will start – and Cameron on the flanks and first-choice ‘keeper Tim Howard on goal.
That the defenders are not guaranteed their spot, even after their previous showings, is a good thing, argued Besler.
“It’s been healthy. We’re excited to push each other,” the 2012 MLS Defender of the Year said. “We’re all competing against each other and we’re all on the same team; we’re trying to quality for the for World Cup. We’ve all kind of come together as a team, but we’re also pushing each other and that kind of helps everybody.”
Gonzalez agreed that the competition, rather than generating uncertainty, helped him grow as a player.
“You’ve got to be on your game day in, day out and have the confidence to play your best and that’s all you can do,” he said. “The rest is up to [Klinsmann] and that’s out of everyone’s control.”