RIO DE JANEIRO -- I have rarely felt so nervo-mistic. That feeling of nervous excitement tinged with optimism and sheer terror that replaces sleep on the eve of a big World Cup matchup. And the U.S. have never faced a bigger game than the round-of-16 clash with Belgium. Yes, their quarterfinals run in 2002 was thrilling (and not enough is made of their third-place finish in 1930. They beat the Belgians 3-0 on the way to that one!), but there have simply never been more people watching, caring, holding their breath and dreaming along with every shot, tackle and misplaced pass.
This is both a game and a game-changer for U.S. soccer.
Not just a clash between the Statue of Liberty and Manneken Pis, or the home of Chuck Norris and that of Jean-Claude Van Damme. It is bigger than that. Millions of Americans have prepared by swearing off their treasured "In Bruges" DVD, reading Joseph Conrad's chilling "Heart of Darkness," or briefly repressing their affection for Brussels-born Audrey Hepburn, but when the referee's whistle blows, this will be a battle between individual talent and collective will.
Perhaps sadly for Jurgen Klinsmann, it is the U.S. that will rely on the multiplier effect of team play. Back in March 2013, the U.S. coach convened a cluster of journalists in Washington, D.C., to spend the day describing his vision for American soccer with gusto. A glut of PowerPoint bullets detailed the style the team would aspire to: "11 player commitment to attack ... an 11 player commitment to defend ... a willingness to attack with numbers in the final third ... Possession with purpose ... Movement ... Penetration front to back confidence one versus one ... deadly from set pieces."
I hand-scrawled an observation into the margin of my notes that day: "Just because I dream of looking as suave as Daniel Craig does not make it so."
At the end of the day, I suggested to Klinsmann that football is ultimately about trade-offs and asked where he envisaged making them. He smiled and responded succinctly: "I am always making compromises."
This is a World Cup where Klinsmann has made compromises. A man of big-picture vision has become a shrewd, often ruthless pragmatist in which results temporarily trump process. In the past three months, the coach has taken risks, valued performance over hierarchy, shaken up a national team culture in which he believed the players had become coddled, and gone all-in on the values of youth, athleticism and fearlessness, risking naiveté and inexperience.
Thus far, the U.S. have tentatively prospered, playing three World Cup games to three different outcomes in three vastly different styles. Tenacity delivered a darling win against Ghana. Confident swashbuckling earned a point against Cristiano Ronaldo and the Portuguese. A muddled defense-first display slogged to a 1-0 loss against a clearly superior Germany.
Klinsmann's players face a Belgian squad that could field a veritable Premier League all-star team. Though their population is smaller than that of the state of Ohio, coach Marc Wilmots (a man who has two of the greatest nicknames in world sports, WARPIG! and "Le Taureau de Dongelberg," or the Bull of Dongelberg) can call upon the talents of Chelsea's skill-soaked attacker Eden Hazard, Manchester City's inspirational captain Vincent Kompany (late fitness check pending), Manchester United's midfield siege gun Marouane Fellaini, Tottenham's polished defender Jan Vertonghen and Chelsea-goalkeeper-elect Thibaut Courtois, who has never lost a game when starting in the Belgian goal.
U.S. vs. Belgium: Tuesday, 4 ET (ESPN and WatchESPN)
- Chris Jones: U.S. belief grows
- Doug McIntyre: Klinsmann pulls out the tricks
- Jeff Carlisle: Altidore's role vs. Belgium
- Jeff Carlisle: Klinsmann justified so far
- Roger Bennett: How far can the U.S. go?
- Doug McIntyre: Beasley's U.S. rebirth
- Read: Tim Howard assesses Belgian attack
Yet World Cup football teams are fleeting entities. They are flung together so quickly, they have little time to find their chemistry and rhythm. Thus far, Belgium have appeared as less than the sum of their parts. Even in winning their first three group games, Les Diables Rouges have rarely impressed, a truth Wilmots has pegged on Hazard's inconsistency. "I'm waiting for him to take hold of a match and impose himself," the Warpig admitted.
This United States team have collective will and commitment in excess. Will that be enough? Klinsmann will have to make a difficult decision about Jozy Altidore's true fitness. The U.S. will not win if they repeat the meager 29 touches Clint Dempsey had toiling up front alone against Germany, the fewest the Texan has ever experienced in an American jersey. After conjuring just four shots, and only one on goal in that game, the U.S. know they must make better use of every set piece and corner they muster. Thus far, they have completed 2 of 11 (18 percent) corner kicks. Only the Australians were worse.
Klinsmann believes a surprise victory is possible. Via email he told me: "The team must peak NOW!!" That includes Michael Bradley, a man who through the first three games has seemed as at ease as Jaime Lannister without his sword hand, and right-back Fabian Johnson, who is well placed to exploit the lack of pace of the Belgian back line. In the pantheon of Johnsons, Fabian has the good looks of Don and the pace of the Jets' Chris. May he use both to great effect.
Irrespective, I have one wish for you all. May you savor today, whatever the outcome. The U.S. have experienced only three previous games at this round-of-16 stage in their entire history. After witnessing the growth of U.S. soccer in the past 20 years, I do not take it for granted. Vow to make lasting memories, whatever you do.