USA vs BELGIUM
Wednesday, May 29, 2013, 8 pm ET
Watch on ESPN and UniMas
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The road to Brazil resumes for the US national team on the shores of Lake Erie on Wednesday night, with a friendly against Belgium marking the outset of a busy three-week stretch which climaxes with three pivotal CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers in 12 days next month.
Wednesday night's affair at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland is the first of two warm-up matches for those Hexagonal clashes against Jamaica, Honduras and Panama, and it poses a staunch test for the Yanks. Blessed with a diverse crop of talent from a range of top European leagues, coach Marc Wilmots and his men are on course for World Cup qualification as they share a commanding lead with Croatia atop UEFA Group A with a 5-0-1 record.
Traditionally a second-tier power in their own crowded region, Belgium's ambitions have grown as stars like Marouane Fellaini, Vincent Kompany, Christian Benteke and Eden Hazard have shone on the grand stage of the English Premier League. The current side looks like an even more daunting opponent than the squad that defeated the United States 1-0 at King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels on Sept. 6, 2011, Jurgen Klinsmann's third game in charge.
The US have yet to welcome their full contingent of overseas-based regulars, which will open up opportunities for less familiar faces to impress against the Red Devils.
These teams have met on four previous occasions, with Belgium enjoying a 3-1 record, all three wins taking place in Brussels. Prior to the 2011 match, there was a 2-0 Red Devils win in 1998 and a 1-0 victory in April 1995 that marked the first game in charge for Yanks coach Steve Sampson. But the US won the first and most momentous meeting in the series, a 3-0 triumph at the 1930 World Cup in Uruguay.
UNITED STATES OUTLOOK
With several potential starters still away on club duty and several injury issues further depleting the ranks, Klinsmann will have 20 bodies to choose from in Cleveland, and a wider assortment when the party moves to Washington for Sunday's friendly against Germany.
On Tuesday, he named Sacha Kljestan and Jermaine Jones as his starting central midfield partnership for Wednesday, and promised another start for DaMarcus Beasley as the veteran lefty celebrates his 100th US cap – and continues his Indian summer at the international level. Klinsmann will likely run the rule over some of his roster's less established names to see how they handle a strong Belgium side, with the right back and left midfield spots in particular subject to widespread speculation given the lack of clear incumbents at those spots in this camp.
Meanwhile, a lively battle has been joined at center back, where Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Clarence Goodson and Geoff Cameron (despite his time at right back this year) are seen as four solid candidates for only two spots.
Though the country has not reached a major international tournament in over a decade, there's a quiet sense of destiny about Wilmots and his side at the moment. A national team star during his own playing days, the Red Devils coach has the benefit of one of the deepest talent pools in Belgium's history and he's marshaled them well so far as they seek to escape the shadows of mighty neighbors France, Germany and the Netherlands.
“No more excuses,” Wilmots told UEFA.com last year. “We have excellent players but have not achieved anything yet.”
With four World Cup qualifiers left in the group round this fall, including a potentially decisive visit to Croatia in October, the focus turns toward securing automatic qualification via top spot in Group A and preparing to make waves in Brazil. Against the US, the players who have made the journey to Cleveland will look to prove their importance ahead of this process.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
USA – Sacha Kljestan
The player who started the “Are you even watching?” meme so many months ago has finally been handed a prominent role by Jurgen Klinsmann – in the center of midfield, and against the nation where he's carried his career to new heights with Anderlecht. It's what Kljestan craves after spending much of Klinsmann's tenure on the periphery of the USMNT picture, and it looks like an important test. After all, the US coach doesn't often name starters well in advance of kickoff, but he pointedly did so with regards to Kljestan vs. Belgium.
Belgium – Romelu Lukaku
The powerful Chelsea striker routinely branded as “the next Didier Drogba” just finished a fruitful Premier League season on loan at West Brom, where he scored 17 goals. He's waiting to see if he fits into José Mourinho's plans and is reportedly attracting interest from other top clubs across Europe. Fresh off his 20th birthday, Lukaku also has his sights set on a World Cup spot with his resurgent national team, and he'll be eager to impress Wilmots in Cleveland.
GOALKEEPERS: Brad Guzan (Aston Villa/England), Tim Howard (Everton/England), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire)
DEFENDERS: DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla/Mexico), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City/England), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy), Clarence Goodson (Brondby/Denmark), Michael Parkhurst (Augsburg/Germany)
MIDFIELDERS: Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders FC), Stuart Holden (Bolton Wanderers/England), Jermaine Jones (Schalke/Germany), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht/Belgium), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
FORWARDS: Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar/Netherlands), Terrence Boyd (Rapid Vienna/Austria), Clint Dempsey (Tottenham Hotspur/England), Herculez Gomez (Santos Laguna/Mexico), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders FC)
GOALKEEPERS : Koen Casteels (Hoffenheim/Germany), Thibaut Courtois (Atlético Madrid/Spain), Jean-François Gillet (Torino/Italy), Simon Mignolet (Sunderland/England)
DEFENDERS: Toby Alderweireld (Ajax/Netherlands), Laurent Ciman (Standard Liege/Belgium), Guillaume Gillet (Anderlecht/Belgium), Vincent Kompany (Manchester City/England), Nicolas Lombaerts (Zenit St. Petersburg/Russia), Sebastien Pocognoli (Hannover/Germany), Daniel Van Buyten (Bayern Munich/Germany), Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal/England), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham Hotspur/England)
MIDFIELDERS: Nacer Chadli (Twente/Netherlands), Steven Defour (Porto/Portugal), Moussa Dembele (Tottenham Hotspur/England), Marouane Fellaini (Everton/England), Thorgan Hazard (Zulte-Waregem/Belgium), Timmy Simons (Nürnberg/Germany), Axel Witsel (Zenit St. Petersburg/Russia)
FORWARDS: Christian Benteke (Aston Villa/England), Kevin De Bruyne (Werder Bremen/Germany), Eden Hazard (Chelsea/England), Maxime Lestienne (Club Brugge/Belgium), Romelu Lukaku (West Bromwich Albion/England), Dries Mertens (PSV Eindhoven/Netherlands), Kevin Mirallas (Everton/England), Jelle Vossen (Genk/Belgium)