SALVADOR, Brazil — Every four years, soccer cleans its slate and allows nations to reinvent themselves. Forgotten teams resurface. Small programs make big strides. Champions uphold their legacy or, in the case of Spain this summer, show their age.
For the second consecutive World Cup, the United States is in position for a breakthrough, a fresh narrative, a defining moment.
[From Fancy Stats: How the United States can beat Belgium | What to expect from U.S.-Belgium (not much scoring) ]
Four years ago in South Africa, the Americans won their first-round group in a heroic manner but lost to Ghana on an extra-time goal in the knockout stage. It wasn’t an upset; rather, it was a missed opportunity to reach the quarterfinals for the second time in three tournaments and set the tone for the next World Cup cycle.
On Tuesday, the U.S. squad enters a round-of-16 match against Belgium with another chance to nudge the program along a little further. The Belgians are a more formidable foe than Ghana was in 2010, having arrived in Brazil with a stable of top-flight talent and a deserved label as dark-horse candidates to hit the semifinals or beyond.
But the Americans recognize another opportunity — on soccer’s grandest stage, no less — to take a considerable step.
“We worked hard for this moment,” Coach Jurgen Klinsmann said Monday at Arena Fonte Nova in this seaside city. “We made it through a very difficult group and now we want more. We are very, very hungry and focused and have a lot of respect for the Belgium side but no fear at all.”
The Americans would not have shown outward fear against any opponent, but given its pedigree, Belgium strikes less fear than historic titans such as Brazil, Argentina or Netherlands.
Facing a Belgian side entered in its first major competition in 12 years, the U.S. squad sees an opening to extend its stay and continue stirring enthusiasm back home.
“The country is paying attention in a way that it's never done before, and we have a chance to make some history,” U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said. “Obviously, we've been to the quarters before , the semis in 1930. But this is a big day, a game we think we can win.”
They think they can win because, despite a 1-0 loss to Germany in the group finale and passage to the next round on a goal differential tiebreaker, they have coalesced around Klinsmann and performed with determination. They have been ungraceful at times and, in the absence of sustained possession, allowed opponents to set the terms.
But they have also shown resilience, the capability to score — four goals in the first two group matches — and overcome duress. They have received strong performances from goalkeeper Tim Howard, right back Fabian Johnson, midfielders Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman and forward Clint Dempsey.
“We want to go far in this World Cup and, for some of the guys, it’s the last opportunity, so you want to make the most of it,” said Dempsey, 31, who has scored in three consecutive World Cups and posted goals in each of the first two matches.
Belgium was perfect in Group H, a middling quartet, but needed late goals in each of the three matches. It conceded just one goal, a first-half penalty kick against Algeria in the opener.
But the status of the Red Devils’ towering backline figure, Vincent Kompany, remains uncertain — he is struggling with a groin injury — and left back Thomas Vermaelen (hamstring) has been ruled out.
The Americans will look to exploit these injuries by looking to attack with more frequency than they managed against the spotless Germans. With Jozy Altidore sidelined with a hamstring injury for two games, Dempsey has tended to the frontline by himself.
Altidore, though, has done moderate work for several days and will suit up Tuesday. Out of action for two weeks, he is not expected to start. But he could become an option in the second half.
“We need to see how things go, but he’s available and this is what we want,” Klinsmann said.
At the start, however, Klinsmann is likely to leave Dempsey on his own and employ five midfielders again. “That’s up to the boss,” Dempsey said while seated next to Klinsmann.
While the Red Devils have defensive concerns, they are confident in their attack, inspired by Chelsea’s Eden Hazard. “He will be absolutely decisive,” teammate Axel Witsel said.
The Americans, meantime, are aiming for a decisive moment in their evolution.
“We certainly are proud of what we’ve done so far just to get out of the group because it was a difficult group,” midfielder Michael Bradley said. “I don’t think many people gave us much of a chance, so there’s certainly a feeling of satisfaction and excitement, but we want more. There’s still a feeling that we have more to give. It’s all there for us.”
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