Belgium, U.S. on level playing field

U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard attends a training session ahead of their World Cup match against...

U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard attends a training session ahead of their World Cup match against Belgium in Salvador, Brazil on Monday, June 30, 2014. (Michael Dalder/Reuters)

KURTIS LARSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:53 PM ET

SALVADOR, BRAZIL - Of all the sides outside CONCACAF, the U.S. knows Belgium best.

The Americans have already lost to the Red Devils twice under head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, home and away.

Belgium, the same team the Americans used to prepare for this World Cup, is the team they'll meet Tuesday in a Round of 16 match here at Arena Fonte Nova. Well, kind of the same team.

When these two squads played in a Cleveland friendly last year, Belgium striker Christian Benteke had his way with the Yanks.

The Aston Villa man scored twice in a 4-2 rout of the U.S. that showed Klinsmann where his team's holes were.

Fortunately for the Americans, though, Benteke isn't here having suffered a pre-tournament Achilles injury.

Furthermore, Belgian bench boss Marc Wilmots announced Monday that he could be without both of his starting centre backs.

Thomas Vermaelen, Wilmots confirmed, will miss Tuesday's match with a minor knee injury while Vincent Kompany remains questionable.

Further up field, reserve midfielder Steven Defour is suspended for a red card he received against South Korea.

It all adds up to these teams appearing to be on a more level playing field ahead of a do-or-die fixture -- one the U.S. has been looking forward to after it lost out on a quarterfinal appearance four years ago.

"We're not satisfied just getting to the Round of 16," U.S. striker Clint Dempsey said. "We want to do more. It's a difficult challenge playing against Belgium.

"They have a lot of quality players, but if we play to the best of our ability we can get the right result."

The Americans will have to be much better than it was in two of its three group games that got them to this point. Despite managing to advance from the Group of Death -- containing Germany, Portugal and Ghana -- the U.S. looked poor against the West Africans and simply sat back for more than an hour against the Germans.

But while the Belgians are losing players, the Americans appear to be getting stronger. After missing two weeks with a hamstring injury, U.S. forward Jozy Altidore has been cleared to play Tuesday, meaning the U.S. could look to commit more to the attack.

In group games against Portugal and Germany, Klinsmann elected to play with just one man up front, leaving Clint Dempsey stranded by himself.

"We don’t know how much (Altidore can play)," Klinsmann said. "He's available, which is what we wanted. This is what we hoped for.

"The medical staff has been working with Jozy and they have done a tremendous job, day and night. Just having him with us tomorrow is huge. But as for how many minutes, we'll see that during the game."

If he plays at all, that is. Altidore might be approaching match fitness, but risking a hamstring early in a knockout match would seem a massive gamble, meaning all of this could be just U.S. posturing ahead of match most pundits don't expect them to win.

"(We knew we would) face these types of teams," Klinsmann said. "I think so far we’ve done a good job. We have to do that again. That’s why (Belgium) finished first in their group, that’s why they went through their group with three wins and that’s why we respect them."

For the U.S., it's also about finally gaining respect by returning to a quarterfinal, a place it hasn't ventured since being knocked out by Germany in 2002.

As Dempsey remarked, the U.S. is no longer happy with just emerging from round-robin play, no matter the opponents.

“We navigated ourselves through the so-called Group of Death,” U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard added, according to FIFA. “Not many people gave us credit to be able to do that before the tournament started.”

Like they did in that 4-2 loss to Belgium last year, the U.S. continues to have issues at the back. Both Geoff Cameron and Omar Gonzalez have split time next to fellow central defender Matt Besler but have both produced moments of madness.

If Klinsmann elects to once again overwhelm the midfield, the central trio of Jermain Jones, Michael Bradley and Kyle Beckerman will once again need to factor in from the first whistle.

The Belgians have too many dynamic players in the middle third for the aforementioned trio to take a single sequence off.

Belgium's Kevin De Bruyne, Marouane Fellaini, Eden Hazard and Mousa Dembele complete one of the top midfields in the tournament -- a group the aforementioned American trio will look to clog up.

"We worked hard for this moment," Klinsmann said. "We made it through a very difficult group and now we want more. We are very, very hungry."

As are U.S. fans, who are still searching for global respect following two straight disappointing showings at this event that ended far too prematurely.

Klinsmann not happy with ref choice

Algerian referee Djamel Haimoudi speaks French.

That statement alone has U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann miffed ahead of a second-round match against the Belgians Tuesday afternoon.

According to Klinsmann, the fact some -- if not most -- of Belgium's players speak French could give them an advantage in that they'll be able to communicate with the referee.

Who cares, right? A referee shouldn't be provoked into making decisions based on peer pressure.

Well, like it or not, players persuade referees throughout matches.

Players persuade referees to watch for things and ask them to call certain fouls they might not see.

"Is it a good feeling?" Klinsmann responded at a pre-game press conference. "No, (the referee) is able to speak French on the field to their players."

Oh, and another thing.

The U.S. eliminated Algeria from the last World Cup -- something Klinsmann also pointed out here in Salvador.

"I understand that sometimes it's difficult for FIFA to always choose the right referees," Klinsmann said. "It is what it is. We respect the decision and we give him absolutely the benefit of the doubt."

That's not to say there's any revenge on Haimoudi's mind, but FIFA typically tries to avoid situations like this, making it all the more bizarre.

In a tournament that's already had its fair share of refereeing controversies, the U.S. has put FIFA and Belgium on notice following its decision to give Haimoudi the reigns.

"I rarely talk to referees," Belgium manager Marc Wilmots told reporters. "And a referee is not there to talk, he's there to referee."


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