Jurgen Klinsmann will be hoping third time's the charm as the United States get set for a friendly with Belgium in Brussels on Tuesday night (2:30 pm ET, ESPN, ESPN3.com).
The new Red, White & Blue boss will continue assessing personnel and installing his more assertive playing style. While the result of this match has no competitive meaning, Klinsmann will surely want his side to display an improvement in the areas of end product and result on his third try with the US national team.
Tuesday's task is deceptively tough. Belgium have lost just once (1-0 to Germany) from their last seven games in Brussels and two of the last 10 on home soil overall. More pertinently, the home team is a work in progress, often brilliant and calamitous within mere minutes of play. This unpredictability alone can make them difficult for opponents to get a handle on during a game.
It's been 25 years since the Red Devils finished fourth at the 1986 World Cup and nearly a decade since their last finals qualification. While they are no longer the fiendish side of Ceulemans, Gerets, Nilis and Scifo, don't be fooled by recent history — few international set-ups can match the emerging talent stocked in the current Belgium squad.
Despite their abundance of skill, the Belgians are a young group and might be a tad preoccupied on Tuesday night. A late leaked equalizer to Azerbaijan on Friday in Euro 2012 qualifying saw the team slip to a point behind Turkey, who will kick off a Group A game-in-hand at Austria at the same time we begin in Brussels.
That lack of focus has been a theme for the Belgians throughout qualifying. They’ve blown a lead seven times, conceded two stoppage-time goals and leaked the late winner in a crunch clash with Turkey in just seven Euro 2012 qualifiers.
None of that will be of any matter to Klinsmann, who — encouraging system rebuild or not — is far more interested in gathering his first US victory. In the age of 140-character analysis, system renovations go over a lot smoother with the fans when some results come with it.
HEAD TO HEAD
All-time: USA: 1 win… Belgium: 2 wins
In Belgium: USA: 0 wins… Belgium: 2 wins
- The only US win vs. Belgium came in teams' first match of the 1930 FIFA World Cup (and the first World Cup match in each team’s history). The US defeated Belgium 3-0 in Montevideo, Uruguay, en route to a fourth-place finish.
- Since that game the teams have met just twice, both at King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels. Belgium won both those games by shutout; 1-0 in 1995 and 2-0 in 1998. Claudio Reyna, the US Soccer youth technical director and current national team staff member played 90 minutes in the 1998 game.
Coming off a silver lining home loss to Costa Rica, the visitors will hope to elevate their game enough to claim a first-ever win in the Low Lands. Some observers, meanwhile, will be more interested at another glimpse into the Klinsmann process. Whatever the demand, all the folks back home expect more visible progress on our quest for a new soccer identity.
It will also be compelling to see how long of a shift Jozy Altidore works after AZ Alkmaar manager Gertjan Verbeek lashed out at Klinsmann in the Dutch press. The boss Cheese Farmer griped that it was "very dumb" that his striker, who is still working to gain full match fitness, was made to fly to California and back in such a short time. Verbeek even asserted to Voetbal International that Altidore didn't feel up for such a demanding trip yet.
With this extreme travel in mind, there should be some changes to Saturday's line-up. Of course, Clint Dempsey will see his first action under Klinsmann and following a shoddy second half performance at the back against Costa Rica from Michael Orozco Fiscal and Carlos Bocanegra, Clarence Goodson will be hoping to do the same.
With Landon Donovan out of the selection, Sacha Kljestan should see time in the playmaking role, and young MLS stars Tim Ream and Brek Shea will have loads of European scouts on hand hoping they get quality minutes.
Should the US go with a 4-3-3, one aspect of judging the transition should be in far better evidence against Belgium. Against the Red Devils, attempting a possession style would likely lead to several tests of the American counterattack defense. Costa Rica rarely chose to break out on last week, but the Tuesday hosts pounce on every opportunity to run you onto your heels.
Some coaches might go to back-ups for a friendly like this, but George Leekens could opt to keep his strongest side together in prep for next month's final two, all-important Euro qualifiers. Usually found in a slightly more defensive version of the Dutch 4-3-3 set, their lineup is riddled with youth, skill, speed and size. Due to injuries or fresh transfers, regular spine members Steven Defour, Thomas Vermaelen and Jan Vertonghen will not be in uniform — but there will be plenty of home starlets still on display.
Young Sunderland netminder Simon Mignolet has been starting of late, with acting captain Vincent Kompany and Zenit St. Petersburg's Nicolas Lombaerts patrolling central defense. Mobile Ajax center back Toby Alderweireld generally slides wide right and Jelle Van Damme is among the choices at left back.
The visitors will want to watch the elbows in midfield with Everton giant Marouane Fellaini out to impose his two-way physical game. Diminutive ideas man Dries Mertens will hold the attack keys, but he most likes to deal from the flank rather than through the middle. Veteran Timmy Simons usually watches the back line, but Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe could also get the nod for fresh legs.
Many of Belgium's top prodigies are in attack, where Energizer Bunny forward Romelu Lukaku (18) is most often flanked by Eden Hazard (20) and Axel Witsel (22). Both of the wingers like to cut into the middle, making it easier for the striker and Mertens to sneak around. Moussa Dembélé and Jelle Vossen (22) supply energetic wide play off the bench.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
USA: Clint Dempsey, attacker. The first thing to look for is assignment. Dempsey can work a few 4-3-3 positions and we shouldn't be surprised to see him do time at more than one of them during Tuesday's contest. Beyond all that, it will be fun to find out what this new style can do for his offensive output.
Belgium: Axel Witsel, attacker. The fresh Benfica catch does pretty much anything you'd ever want an attacker to do. Naturally a winger, he's far too energetic to hang out on the flank all game long. The single most difficult variable in facing Witsel? Probably that long, snaky stride on the dribble. He's a beaten defender or danger free kick waiting to happen.