With the 2014 World Cup in Brazil just over one year away, the US still doesn't know who to turn to for goals and has some holes to plug up in defense. That much continued to be clear on Wednesday night, when the US fell 4-2 to Belgium in an international friendly in Cleveland.
While the friendly (and another exhibition game against Germany on June 2 in Washington DC) was a tune-up for three World Cup qualifiers in June, it was also a chance for the US to see how they match up against one of the best teams in the world. Belgium brought their A-team to Cleveland save for Chelsea striker Eden Hazard, and put on an offensive clinic against a US defense that made error after error.
From a mental standpoint, allowing four goals isn't ideal going into a difficult game against Germany and three important World Cup qualifiers. Developmentally, US Head Coach Jurgen Klinsmann got to give a slew of young players much-needed experience at the international level.
“Obviously a negative result, but I think an important game because it gets us right in our toes now. We know where players are, and we had to jump start these three and a half weeks, having guys come in on Sunday and Monday and throw them into a game right away."
"There’s a lot we can learn from these opponents. This is why we play teams like Belgium, like Germany...there’s so much that you can read from those games. Obviously you want to win them and when you lose them it’s not such a big pleasure, but I’d rather play Belgium 10 more times than El Salvador 100 times because that’s where you learn."
The US' best options at outside back are all injured, forcing Klinsmann to go with DaMarcus Beasley, who earned his 100th cap in the loss, to play left back while Geoff Cameron slotted in at right back. Meanwhile, Clarence Goodson and Omar Gonzalez combined in central defense.
The back line had a bumpy ride from the opening minutes.
In the 7th minute, Romelu Lukaku ran into the penalty area in behind the defense, forcing US goalkeeper Tim Howard to swipe the ball away from his cleats. But Howard's clearance fell to Kevin Mirallas, who chipped into the vacated net for the early lead.
A five-man US midfield went toe-to-toe with Belgium all game long and created an equalizer in the 23rd minute. Clint Dempsey redirected a corner kick by Brad Davis to the back post, where Cameron jumped over his defender and headed the ball into the net for his first career international goal.
Brad Guzan replaced Howard in net at halftime, while the gun-shy Jozy Altidore was subbed out for Eddie Johnson. Guzan could do little to prevent Belgium from scoring three second half goals, while Johnson provided virtually no response.
In the 56th minute, Gonzalez made an errant back pass to Kevin de Bruyne, who collected the ball on the right side of the penalty area and passed to an open Christian Benteke. Benteke poked the ball into the back of the net past a helpless Guzan to restore Belgium's lead.
Marouane Fellaini made it 3-1 by heading another cross by de Bruyne into the goal, his sixth career international goal. Next, Benteke sealed the victory for Belgium with a second goal in the 72nd minute, going in behind the defense and chipping the ball over the head of Guzan to make it 4-1.
"We want to see how all the goals developed and what mistakes were made because there’s always a series of mistakes leading to goals," added Klinsmann. "We’ll want to analyze that and then we’ll have a better judgment, but I think it’s clear when you have players like Benteke, Lukaku, and Fellaini, the attacking players that have that vision on the field and think two steps ahead, that is the thought process that is so important for our players to learn. I think for them it was really important to see.
The US grabbed a consolation goal in the 80th minute through Dempsey, who converted from the penalty spot after the referee called a handball in Belgium's penalty area.
Every one of the US' goals was preventable, meaning the likes of Gonzalez need to be more aware in future competitive matches where the stakes are higher. Much of the US' defensive woes are also due to the fact that Klinsmann has midfielders playing as outside backs while regular starters nurse their injuries.
“We obviously at this level we need to tighten up," added Howard. "I think anybody would tell you that. Most of the teams are going to come up with fire power, so it’s on us to put the other team on our terms defensively. We should be dictating that. Our line of confrontation, our pressure on and off the ball, whether our back line drops or steps up, those are all things that dictate the tempo of the game.”
The defense needs time.
The offense needs a major face-lift.
Aside from his goal from the penalty spot, Dempsey struggled to make a difference in the run of play. Neither Altidore nor Johnson were the poachers they needed to be for the US to score a goal and more often than not just one player was in the penalty area when either Davis or Graham Zusi crossed the ball from the flank.
In their last five games, the US have shot on goal just seven times from the run of play. Against Belgium, it was obvious that the US midfield, while capable of maintaining possession and getting the ball into the penalty area, was victimized by forwards who could not shoot on sight. It's an issue that has plagued Klinsmann and the US since the beginning of this World Cup cycle.
“We talked about that before the game," explained Klinsmann. Here and there we always look for the complicated ball into Jozy, into Eddie Johnson, and into Clint instead of just carrying it through the midfield, just playing it to people’s feet, moving off the ball and keeping it simple. We made it a little too difficult for ourselves there, and if we do that than people get insecure and the passing gets insecure."
Young players like New England's Juan Agudelo, DC United's Chris Pontius, and San Jose's Chris Wondolowski may all be viable options to jump-start the US attack should Altidore and Johnson not produce in the next month. The eventual return of Landon Donovan should also provide Klinsmann with an offensive boost.
But for now, the current crew of American players needs to put this loss behind them re-focus for Germany, and then be ready for qualification games against Jamaica, Honduras, and Mexico.
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