"What (Michigan coaches) told me is that they're focusing on point guards right now, but if anything opens up, they'll definitely come back on and recruit me as hard as they were," said Towns
7/1/2014 – USA 1, Belgium 2 (ET) – out of World Cup
I never really forgave the guy. Admittedly, it's not like there was a huge amount to forgive. I just thought that after I'd indulged his desire to go to a couple of shows that I normally would not have he would reciprocate. Instead, he sulked through the entirety of a fun Robert Earl Keen show that I should have enjoyed about 15% more.
We were 20-ish, in Austin, Texas. We were engineers on summer internships, suddenly stripped of our friend networks and ill-equipped to forge new ones. In such circumstances, horizons broaden rather quickly, which is how I'd ended up at a Smashing Pumpkins show a few weeks earlier.
I know exactly what I wore: a terrible replica Michigan hockey jersey forged from whatever that fabric is that comes with large, regular holes and feels more like plastic than anything else that humans put on their bodies. I know this because after the show this material was absolutely soaked with sweat. Some of it was mine; the majority was from the writhing mass of humanity that had surged to and fro for the duration of the show.
I had no idea the thing could even get so sodden. I'd washed it several times and knew it was the kind of material that exited a washing machine as dry as it entered. After that show the thing was ten pounds heavier than it was two hours before.
I sat on a stoop in the bright Texas sun and tried to process the weird communal thing I'd just gone through. It was, above all, exhausting.
On the day that hooked me for life, I force-marched myself down to the pub at halftime. I was in Ireland for a summer mostly because a girl had dumped me and I wanted to broaden the ol' horizons and the United States had just roared out to a 3-0 lead against impregnable invulnerable super-skilled Portugal. My place was about 20 minutes from the city center at reasonable pace; I got myself down there in 15, huffing and puffing as the second half kicked off.
To the Irish, the USA game that had just blown my mind was just an appetizer to Ireland-Germany. Group stuff meant that a draw would just about see the Irish through—they had Saudi Arabia last. Germany scored, because Germany. A loss was deadly. Everything was desperation and death until stoppage time, when Niall Quinn knocked a ball down to Robbie Keane and Kahn was finally breached.
Pandemonium. I ended up hugging a guy who was definitely not Irish. 12 years on I can only say he was Pakistani-ish. We hugged like we'd known each other since birth and jumped up and down and I was permanently in the power of the World Cup.
Ireland decided to take the afternoon off to drink by the river.
Four years later I watched the USA get blasted off the field by the Czechs. Six-foot-one-hundred Jan Koller pounded in a cross in the first ten minutes and things got worse from there. I sat across the table from Anthony, who'd moved to Ann Arbor and read my blog and knew I liked the USMNT. He'd emailed me because he needed someone to watch them with.
A number of months later, a guy who'd just moved to Ann Arbor named Jerry joined us at Charley's for some match or another—Gold Cup?—because he needed someone to watch the USMNT with. I don't remember what it was. It doesn't matter. From there it the web expanded to encompass most of my friendships forged after college. When I got married three years ago, Jerry was our officiant and Anthony was the best man.
Four years later I was in Chicago for the very exciting Blogs With Balls conference; the World Cup was in South Africa and the USA was playing a tune-up friendly against Australia on the premises, which meant the thing was at approximately 7 AM. I met a guy I'd known as Orson and kind of now know as Spencer (but who is still mostly Orson) at a bar somewhere proximate to Wrigley Field and watched Robbie Findley round the goalkeeper and shoot about 20 feet wide.
When I started this blog, there were two other college football blogs, period. Orson ran one. As college football blogs developed it gradually dawned on a large percentage of the early adopters that we had another, odder obsession: the US national soccer team. I think it's because the kind of person into college football enough to start a blog about it prefers his emotional gambling on sports to be as high-stakes as possible.
We gathered it ourselves in weird ways. I watched the 1994 World Cup in my basement on a 14 inch TV, just like FIFA wanted, and then helpfully forgot about it in 1998. I honestly have no idea what drew anyone else to the national team other than Orson, who's written about it. At the moment I was force-marching to the King's Head in Galway, Orson was running up a darkened street towards a lunatic screaming "WE'RE UP ON PORTUGAL" at five in the morning. I imagine all of us were, in some manner of speaking, running towards a lunatic at some point.
We were together then. I saw Landon score against Algeria in a bar with my best friends, both the half-dozen I knew already and the two hundred who just happened to be there.
I love the US national team. I love it in the way you can only love your wife: I chose it. It was not given to me by my father, like Michigan was. As something approximating an adult I made a decision. It stuck in a way that the Red Wings did not stick, that the Oilers did not stick, that every single other attempted non-Michigan affiliation did not stick. I chose it, and somehow it chose me.
Now I am in so deep that in some weird way the anger cannot stick. If I saw Chris Wondolowski today I'd buy him a beer and say "it's okay, man." I wrote a column earlier this year about how I invented a slur for people who annoy me by being even slightly incompetent. And yet here I am after getting crushed and all I want is for September 23rd to roll around. That's the next time the USA takes the field.
So I'm under this table. I'm under it because the US has just worked a brilliant drawn-up-in-the-dirt free kick that results in a goal a universe where being really clever is everything. I am aware I am not in this universe. If I was being a teenager would have gone a lot better. Therefore the US is still down a goal with five minutes left.
I am under this table an unusually long time. I am the kind of person who screams SHOW ME THE GAME when, say, a basketball broadcast cuts away from a point guard bringing the ball up the floor uncontested. I am still under the table, though. If I remain under the table I will not have to see the clock ticking inexorably upward. I know that I have to stop being under the table pretty soon, but I like it under the table where time has stopped.
Eventually I undo the emergency squat and stop being under the table, and time resumes. I'm not soaked in sweat but it's not for lack of trying. I have lurched to and fro only metaphorically this time, with a mass of humanity that extends to the table I had to abandon to get to the spot where I could stop time, to Atlanta and Alabama and Denver where Orson and Jerry and Jess are, to that setup in Kansas City or Chicago they keep showing on TV in an attempt to catch that Landon-vs-Algeria video live.
Above all, it is wonderful. Except for the score, of course, which is a crime and a lie. But I would not trade the horrible roiling feeling of doom for anything. As Michael Bradley said, the World Cup is about suffering well. We do, together.
I ain't got nothing. I mean, I could, but I can't. Instead, some goodbyes to guys who probably aren't going to see 2018:
BEASLEY. I may have been excessively strident in my attempt to stab anyone who said anything bad about Beasley, and then Beasley goes and redeems all excessive strident-ness. Amazing career, terrific player, terrific story arc, still weighs about 65 pounds. Most underrated USMNT player ever.
HOWARD. YOU SHALL NOT PASS, he said. He had an incredible beard as he did so. "Distribution… brilliant."
DEMPSEY. 1000% Anthemface. 1000% Deuceface. Scored goal after goal and stood as an eagle-riding, gun-waving avatar of America. Made it impossible to accuse USMNT of being euro floppers for duration of career. A hard man for hard times.
JONES. Anyone who says this is not an American is going to get run into the ground and then lashed in the face by a shot. Jones may not have known it, we may not have known it, but the man was born in Kansas and never left. He has overalls, and has always worn them.
BECKERMAN. Sanneh 2014. The guy who you're just like "remember when Beckerman played out of his mind?" Legacy is being that guy in the movie who gets on the Sports Or A Capella Team just at the end and kills it.
DONOVAN. Mexico feared Landon Donovan.
|WHAT||USA vs Belgium|
|LINE||Si Se Puede|
WIN OR DIE. Image via a "spritegirl".
THE THEM: IT CAME FROM GERMINAL BEERSCHOT
Belgium is ludicrously talented for a nation with about the same population as Michigan, especially since this is not a country like Holland that has a rich history in the game. The Flyin' Waffles haven't so much as made either the World Cup or the European Championships since 2002. This has not stopped them from growing a generation of talent that has seen them rocket up the FIFA rankings and the bookies' odds. Pre-tourney, Belgium was fifth-favorites.
This is because the team is full of club-level stars. If you took each World Cup team and sold them on the transfer market right now, only Brazil would cost more.
Part of that is because Belgium is so danged young. The other part is because they are good.
This hasn't really shown in the group stages. The Waffles haven't scored before the 70th minute of any of their games despite fielding an all-star team in a group that was kindling waiting for a match.
There are two main reasons for this. One is the absence of striker Christian Benteke, who was injured just before the World Cup. Romelu Lukaku, his replacement, is a big name himself, but for whatever reason the team seems to lack je ne sais quoi when he's the main guy. The second is Belgium's lack of outside backs. Without overlapping runs from them, teams have been free to double up on Belgium's talented wingers.
There hasn't been a whole lot to learn about Belgium in two of their three games. They faced an Algeria team that was parking the bus virtually the whole time, and in the group finale against South Korea they played a heavily rotated lineup against what may have been the worst team in Brazil.
The Russia match is the closest thing to what will transpire against the US. Russia had half the possession and matched the Belgians in shots, finally ceding a goal in the 88th minute as the defenders on Eden Hazard faltered.
And then there was the friendly about a year ago in which Belgium thrashed the USA backline to a 4-2 win. The US started a back four of Beasley-Goodson-Gonzalez-Cameron in that one and Christian Benteke, who is out of this World Cup, was around to harrass the USA… but if they play anything like they did in that friendly it's going to be ugly.
GOALIE: Thibaut Courtois has spent the last three years as Atletico Madrid's goalie, during which time Madrid's stingy defense saw them win La Liga, shockingly. He's a strength.
Kompany and Vermalen (background) are doubtful, apparently
DEFENSE: Health issues abound. Anthony Vanden Borre, the Zangeif-lookin' mofo you may have noticed menacing his way around the field against South Korea, is out with an injury. While he was not a likely starter he may have been called on as a substitute if Belgium found themselves trailing; as a natural outside back he offers more going forward than their other options there.
That's because the rest of those options are center-backs. Like Germany, Belgium have entered this tournament determined to play a back four entirely consisting of naturally central players. In Belgium's case it's because they have a pile of excellent CBs and no fullbacks.
The first-choice central defenders are supposed to be Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermalen, but both of them are nursing injuries. Kompany has a groin issue, Vermalen a hamstring problem. Kompany missed the South Korea game, for whatever that means. It does sound like he's having issues that might make him a risk his coach may not want to take:
"Now we wait for the reaction, the training and the development day by day, but you saw the last game too – he tried hard in the last training session and had to stop after half an hour"
If one of those guys can't go, expect 36-year-old Daniel Van Buyten to get a start. Van Buyten has played all of Belgium's games so far; at 6'6" he is obviously a force in the air, but he may be susceptible to getting outrun. He is a backup at Bayern Munich who's gotten about a dozen appearances per year for the last three. If both are out Zenit's Nicolas Lombaerts is likely to draw in. He's is a downgrade but only because Kompany has a claim to be the world's best central defender. He actually scored against the USA in 2011, but that USA lineup had Howard and Dempsey and no one else who will play tomorrow.
As previously mentioned, the outside backs are a bit of a weak point. Toby Alderwereld is the right back; he's a backup center back for Atletico Madrid. The left back could be Vermalen but is more likely to be Jan Vertonghen. Vertonghen had an up and down group stage, giving up the penalty that put Algeria up and scoring the lone goal against South Korea.
These guys aren't hoofers or anything…
these are talented technical footballers who impress at centre-back because of their ability to bring the ball out of defence, so they certainly aren’t useless clodhoppers. Amazingly, Alderweireld, Vermaelen and Vertonghan had almost identical footballing educations, raised at Germinal Beerschot before moving across the border to Ajax, where they were encouraged to play proactively in a high defensive line, and bring the ball out of defence intelligently.
…but while they can help the team get it out of the back, overlapping is not in the cards. Against Russia they barely approached the final third.
Belgium outside backs versus Russia
Belgian outside backs did get a bit more forward in the other games. If the US gets trapped in their own end with 30% of the possession or just flat sucks, fullbacks popping up on offense will be a symptom, not a cause.
MIDFIELD: Belgium is likely to field Alex Witsel in their version of the Beckerman role. Insert the usual "except he's paid a bucket of money by a major Euro club" here. In this case it's oil-gorged Russian outfit Zenit St Petersburg. Witsel as described by Zonal Marking:
The primary holder is Axel Witsel, a strong, reliable and commanding midfielder that doesn’t advance into attack, but can move up the pitch to shut down opponents and leave space between the lines – as mentioned, the centre-backs deal with anyone in that zone.
The primary attacking midfielder will be Kevin De Bruyne, who shredded the US with through balls in that friendly and has easily been Belgium's most dangerous offensive player aside when allowed to play in the center of the field behind the striker. (He was anonymous as a right sided midfielder for about 60 minutes against Algeria, then became a huge threat as soon as substitutions shoved him into the middle.)
The third midfielder is in question. Marouane Fellaini made a major impact in the Algeria game as an out-and-out striker looking to pound things in with his head. He also scored a thundering header against the US a year ago. He was deployed against Russia in Belgium's most important group game, so it seems like he'd be the obvious pick. But then there's a calf injury that forced him off the field early yesterday. That would open the door for Mousa Dembele, except he's suffering from basically the same injury. The Ghana witch doctor may be on our side now.
Anyway, pick between these gentlemen:
They’re very different options – Fellaini is a physical destroyer who lacks guile on the ball, and Dembele is a peculiar, converted forward who is excellent at dribbling forward and evading challenges, but offers surprisingly little end product, preferring to keep his passing simple.
Fellaini's ability to hit things hard with his head gives him the edge, health being equal.
De Bruyne (left) and Lukaku (right) haven't been able to hook up so far
FORWARD: Belgium's been looking for something more impressive than what 21-year-old Chelsea forward Romelu Lukaku's been able to offer so far, but they don't have great options. Kevin Mirallas is not a physical presence at 5'10" and Divock Origi is promising but just 19.
The wingers will be problems. Dries Mertens has consistently gotten into dangerous areas coming in from the right.
Mertens vs Russia
The area just inside the box towards the end line that Mertens got to repeatedly is assist central.
Premier League assist density, last three years
Mertens could not find the final ball against Russia, or his strikers weren't in a spot to run on to it. Mertens may just be a guy who isn't too good at making goals right now.
Even so the US will be playing with fire if they allow anything similar—Russia finally got bit when Eden Hazard, the left winger, got into that spot on the other side of the box and set up Origi for an easy slam home. Hazard is the most expensive and highest-regarded of any of Belgium's players—he was just named Chelsea's player of the year at the ripe old age of 23—but he hasn't had much impact with the national team. He's scored just six times in 47 caps and for much of the tournament he's been anonymous. That's where Belgium's lack of full-backs really shows. Defenses can overplay him and take him away. Expect the same from the US, with a defensive mid shaded to him.
Facing down another 4-3-3 with super dangerous wingers and question marks at outside back, expect a reprise of the Portugal game plan: a 4-5-1 with defensive responsibility on the flanks and Johnson bombing forward in an effort to exploit the lack of defense provided by the 4-3-3.
DEFENSE: Beasley, Besler, Cameron, Johnson.
Beasley and Besler are locks if healthy; Johnson is going to start. There is a faint chance that he gets moved up into the midfield, allowing Yedlin or Chandler to start. Faint, though.
While Gonzalez had his best game for the US in a long time against Germany, Cameron is likely to return to the lineup. He provides more ability with the ball at his feet and the USA is going to need more possession than they did against Germany in a game they actually have to win. Also, his mobility will be a major asset against Hazard.
The US has a little bit of a luxury here, as they can afford to give their outside backs cover since Belgium won't be overlapping much. Job one for the US outside backs and midfielders is to keep Belgium's wingers out of the danger zone. If they cross, they cross. The US has decided to live and die with crosses by jamming the middle, and with Fellaini in question all the more reason to double down.
time for meep meep?
MIDFIELD: Beckerman, Jones, Bedoya, Bradley, Yedlin
Beckerman, Jones, Bradley are locks. Jones has been the USA's player of the tournament so far. This is the game Bradley's touch returns, I promise. Beckerman is going to be absolutely critical as he strives to prevent De Bruyne from playing Belgians in on Howard's goal. If he can quiet the Belgian #10 as the US reaches the quarters hell have cemented an unlikely place in USMNT lore.
The wing spots are in doubt. Davis was invisible and lifted early. Zusi's touch has been off and his service poor aside from the winner against Ghana; Bedoya seems like he's about ready to fall over and expire on the regular. Given what we've seen so far, Bedoya makes sense. He's the only guy who's given you two-way play on the left this tourney, and he's relatively fresh.
Aaand… this could be a spot where Klinsmann does something wacky like start Yedlin. It's easy to see Yedlin zooming past the Belgians' left back, whoever it is, into the assist zone he got to for the second against Portugal. Yedlin's speed will also help the US cover on Hazard. Meanwhile any individual defensive issues he has are not likely to come into play.
Zusi is of course a possibility.
What about Jozy? There have been reports he's doing some running, and Klinsmann has said he's "very optimistic" again:
‘‘We are very optimistic,” said US coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “Every day is a big step forward with Jozy. It’s 11 days now and it’s looking better every day, so we are optimistic we have him being a part of the Belgium game.’’
"A part" is one thing. A start that might go 120 minutes with a still-lingering muscle injury is unlikely.
SUBS: If the US finds itself down they'll have to go for it, so expect some sort of midfielder-for-striker swap with Beckerman the most likely to go out since he offers the least going forward. This is a recording.
In a tie game pushing towards extra-time, the US might lift one of the wingers for Wondolowski, and then if things get very deep Dempsey will probably be cashed out, allowing Johannsson to enter.
If the US is fortunate enough to be protecting a lead, bringing in Gonzalez will make sense. Fellaini is truly terrifying in the air, and Belgium's response to Algeria suggests they will go 4-4-2 with Fellaini up front if they need to. Whether that's a straight swap for Cameron or something else I don't know, but whatever it is it should not be Gonzalez as some sort of ostrich defensive mid.
Algerian Djamel Haimoudi has drawn the game. He did the most recent African Cup of Nations final and a Confed Cup semi; so far in this tournament he's done the Costa Rica-England and Holland-Australia games.
The latter featured a pretty ridiculous PK call for Australia when a Holland defender's arm hit a cross that came from about two feet away and seemed an obvious case of ball-to-hand. On the other hand, Haumoudi has a number of opportunities to bite on dives in the box and passed.
I'd mention cards but at this point it's clear that the refs have been instructed to be very lenient with yellows. That's no doubt an attempt to keep suspensions down since yellows now clear after the quarters instead of the group stage.
KEYS OTHER THAN SCORING MORE GOALPOINTS
Good goddamn Bradley. This is not the Michael Bradley I know. The above is. Bradley's history with the US when allowed to forward is one of constant activity, through balls that come off, and late runs into the box that are a danger few outfits are adequately prepared for.
He hasn't exactly been terrible in this tournament, but he has not provided the attacking edge he has for the last four years. It's probably just bad luck and bad form at the wrong time, but it's unlikely the US wins this game without Bradley having a hand in a USA goal.
Fitness will be tested… again. The US got an extra day of rest compared to Germany, but unfortunately they are going up against a team that rested a bunch of guys in their final group match.
However, the tests will go both ways. Belgium has a number of guys in various states of injury. If Kompany or Vermalen or Fellaini play there's a chance that one of them has to use up a substitution early, and as the US learned four years ago you really do not want to have to use early substitutes in a game that can go 120 minutes.
Keep the ball, have the ball, keep and have the ball. The US has gotten boxed in by two of its three opponents so far, and while the situations they found themselves in (up a goal thirty seconds in and soon without Jozy; playing Germany needing to not lose by lots) lent themselves to that kind of cagey play, now it's win or die time.
This means keeping the dang ball and playing Belgium like an equal. The good news is that Belgium is not particularly good at pressing. Algeria and South Korea abandoned any idea of possession pre-game, but a not particularly technical Russian side had exactly as much of the game as Belgium did, with relatively few Aimless Upfield Punts.
Center backs and goalie unsuccessful passes, Russia vs Belgium
The Shin Guardian's take on Belgium's panini game:
Defensively, Belgium claim to be a pressing team but that’s a dangerous description for it. They’ll occasionally go through spells when they’ll press high when commanding the run of play; but, if not, they’ll usually just retreat behind the halfway line and attempt to loosely swarm the ball. <– i.e. not pressing defense. Sampaoli would be mortified.
The first pass or two out of the back will be crucial, especially without Jozy. Bradley should be dropping deep to provide an outlet on the regular.
Fullback offense. The US fullbacks didn't have much impact on the Germany game aside from a couple of slaloming Beasley runs on which Run DMB seemed a decade younger, but this was largely because the US couldn't hold the ball long enough for them to get upfield. Once the US clears Belgium's pressure, the best offense they'll have is their speedy wing backs against the Belgium flanks.
WIN THE GAME. #winthegame
SECTION WHERE I PREDICT THE SAME THING KENPOM DOES