Unleash Fabian Johnson
If it weren't for Jermaine Jones inexplicably becoming golazo scoring steamroller of a colossus astride the american midfield Fabian Johnson would be the breakout star of this tournament for America. Every good thing the US has done in attack has involved Johnson bombing down the right flank causing havoc in the opposing defense. The corner kick that led to John Brooks stunning winner came because Johnson forced a Ghanaian defender into a panicked touch on the end line. The Dempsey goal in the Portugal game came from the interplay with Johnson and super sup Deandre Yedlin down the right flank. It was Yedlin and Johnson again who combined down the right side to create the US's only real chances against Germany.
Now come the Belgian's a team with one glaring weakness, their lack of any natural full backs. The Red Devils start four players who make their living in the center of their defense for their club teams. The left fullback position has been a real trouble spot for them with Jan Vertonghen being thoroughly underwhelming. Fabian Johnson has to have a big impact on this game with all other routes of attacking being ineffective for the US so far this tournament. The Belgians are a team that likes to keep things narrow playing through the middle so Johnson will have space, he must do something with it.
How Much Jozy?
Jozy Is Back
Jozy Is Back
The good news is that Jozy is back, the question is one of how much and when he will play? With Jurgen Klinsman is it impossible to know. Like the man who preceded him in the position Klinsman has a knack for making head scratching personnel decisions (see: Donovan, Landon). But unlike Bob Bradley* most of Klinsman's personnel decisions have panned out. With that backdrop he faces one of the biggest decisions of his tenure with the US, how does he handle the return of Jozy Altidore?
* It was at this stage of the tournament in 2010 that Bradley decided that Ricardo Clark was preferable to Maurice Edu. He was really wrong about that.
The dilemma for him simple; does he restore Jozy to his natural role as the starter at the top of the formation chasing down long balls and tormenting defenders with his strength, athleticism and skill. knowing full well that Jozy probably can not go the full 90 and will have to be replaced in the second half.
The other option is do what the US has done in his absence, start Clint Dempsey up top and bring Jozy in as a impact sub for the last 30 minutes or so. Salvadore is no Manaus, so the heat and humidity won't be anything near jungle levels. But there is something to be said for unleashing Jozy on a tired and heavy legged Belgian side to tip the balance at the end. Plus it would be nice to have Jozy should this thing go to PK's.
Kyle Beckerman? Kyle Beckerman!
An argument could be made that the single most important player for the USA in this World Cup has been the dreadlocked figure of Kyle Beckerman. His tactical discipline and heretofore well hidden mastery of the dark arts have been invaluable for the US. By including him in the side Klinsmann has enabled Jermaine Jones to become a box to box monster.
Before this World Cup Jones was often a liability for the side. He has been good in attack and a reliable bulldozer when needs be in the final third. But he hasn't be the most tactically astute player in an American shirt, and with Beckerman playing he doesn't have to be. Beckerman's positioning is always good, he reads play well and is quick to cut out opposing attacks before they start. When the possession flips Beckerman is generally good at hitting the outlet and getting the attack moving.
Beckerman will be a vital cog for the United States against a Belgium team that plays straight down the middle of the field. Without natural fullbacks the Belgians have no way to expand the defense laterally and as a result have to play through the defense. This is something the US has been good at stopping in this tournament, its the wide play and resultant crosses that give them fits.
To shut the Belgians down the US and Beckerman in particular have to stay disciplined tactically. A lot of attention will be payed to Eden Hazard who plays on the right side of defense and Dries Mertens who plays on the left but spends a lot of time drifting centrally.
The most amazing thing about the US advancing out of the group of death is that they did so with Michael Bradley being so drastically out of form. In this tournaments teams who's best player is out of form tend not to make it very far. So it is imperative that Bradley finds himself in this round or the US will be heading home after four games once again.