SAO PAULO – By the time the field gets whittled down to the final 16, there are very few surprises left in the World Cup.
Coaching staffs have more time to focus on studying just one team – there’s no more scrambling to study three vastly different opponents like the group stage – and there’s a healthy sample size of three recent games to learn each team’s tendencies, strengths and weaknesses.
For the United States and their knockout round opponent Belgium, there’s even more tape in the vault. Their matchup on Tuesday in Salvador will be their third in three years – both previous games were Belgium wins, one in rainy Brussels in 2011 and another in steamy Cleveland last summer – and they nearly played each other in a scrimmage here in early June just to bang heads against someone outside out their own World Cup training camp.
So when a Belgian reporter asked Michael Bradley on Saturday how much he knew about his next opponent, he answered with a sly wink and a smile: “We know a lot.”
The scouting report on the Belgians is actually a trickier one to solve this week than in the past, but that’s potentially good news for the Americans. Injuries have hit the Belgium camp as hard as any team left in the tournament – captain Vincent Kompany (groin) and fellow defender Thomas Vermaelen (hamstring) are both questionable, and backup right back Anthony Vanden Borre (broken fibula) is out – but the Americans are still wary.
After all, Belgium backed up their top seed in Group H with a perfect run over their first three games here, one of only four teams in Brazil to escape the group stage without suffering a loss or a draw.
Some of those performances were slightly shaky – a come-from-behind 2-1 win over Algeria was particularly revealing – but the Belgians are still “one of the more complete teams in the World Cup,” according to US defender DaMarcus Beasley.
“It’s a country that doesn’t have the history of Germany or Italy or some of these countries, but when you look over the past few years, when you look at the quality of their players, it certainly has to be talked about as one of the best teams in Europe,” Bradley said. “We’ll use these few days to talk, to watch a little bit and be ready to step on the field against a very good team.”
Bradley didn’t play in either of the United States’ two recent matchups with Belgium, but goalkeeper Tim Howard started in both. He’s tied to the Belgian team perhaps as well as anyone, considering he’s teammates at Everton with winger Kevin Mirallas and imposing forward Romelu Lukaku, and he’s close friends with former Toffee and current Manchester United midfielder Marouane Fellaini.
Howard said on Saturday that he has not spoken with his Everton friends since the tournament began, but he expects to speak with them before the game on Tuesday.
“They’re known around Europe as one of the up-and-coming, really hungry and talented teams,” Howard said. “All of their players are playing in top clubs. Certain guys who are playing in the top clubs can’t even get in the starting lineup, because there’s other guys keeping them out. Just a young, hungry, really fit, strong team.
“They’ve got all the qualities of being great. Hopefully, they won’t take flight yet.”
Klinsmann said earlier this week that he has no regrets about the team’s cancelled scrimmage against the Belgians earlier this month – crippling Sao Paulo traffic made Belgium’s commute across town almost impossible – and called Belgium “one of the secret favorites” to win the World Cup, but also insisted that the US’ familiarity with the Belgians should provide something of an advantage on Tuesday.
“We have absolutely no fear at all,” he said. “We feel like we’re in a position now to challenge it. We believe we’ve build a foundation in our team that we are able to beat them.”
A Belgian reporter earlier this week reminded Klinsmann that he himself has a World Cup history with Belgium that dates back to well before Brazil. Back in 1994, Klinsmann scored Germany’s second goal of a 3-2 win over the Belgians during a knockout game at Solider Field in Chicago, a moment the reporter insisted still creates bad soccer memories for the folks back at home.
“I don’t remember much of that game,” Klinsmann said with a smile. “But I hope I can build on that one.”