Preview: Despite Belgium’s talent, U.S. has reason to believe

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The United States has a semifinal appearance on its World Cup résumé, but there’s a reason why that doesn’t come up very often. That result came all the way back in 1930, when the shallow nature of the inaugural tournament meant winning your group earned a place in the semifinals. Having beaten Belgium and Paraguay in group play, the U.S. lost to Argentina in the semifinals, 6-1, bowing out in front of over 72,000 at the legendary Centenario in Montevideo.

The true gold standard of U.S. World Cup performance remains2002 – the year the team claimed its only knockout round victory. Having tarnished Portugal’s Golden Generation in the group stage, Bruce Arena’s team got goals from the best number nine in team history (Brian McBride) and a 20-year-old Landon Donovan to cruise past rival Mexico and into the quarterfinals. A controversial loss to Germany later (thanks, Torsten Frings), and the squad that went to Japan-South Korea had both legacy and martyrdom.

Twelve years later, that win in Jeonju, South Korea, remains the only bright light in the U.S.’s knockout round history. Be it 1994, when a tournament on home soil saw the team bow out 1-0 to a 10-man Brazil, or 2010, when a second straight do-or-die loss to the Black Stars handed the team a new nemesis, close calls in must-win matches only affirmed the legend of 2002.

They’re the types of loses that fuel fan nightmares. Though the team was second-best each time, each game was close enough for one break to matter. What if Frings’ hand ball gets called in `02? Or Claudio Reyna doesn’t lock knees with __ against Ghana in `06? What if Rico Clark doesn’t gift Kevin-Prince Boateng the opener in 2010, or … what if Leonardo doesn’t break Tab Ramos’s skull in `94? Even that year, the U.S. only lost by one goal.

Each result allows fans to dream, to think “We’re so close. If we’re better four years from now, we can get over the hump.”

[ MORE: How will US line up vs. Belgium in Round of 16 clash? ]
[ MORE: Jozy Altidore hands US huge boost, fit to face Belgium ]
[ MORE : Three key battles that could decide US vs. Belgium showdown ]

Tuesday may as well be four years from now. After seeing the U.S. advance out of one of the most difficult groups its ever been given, fans have every reason to believe Jurgen Klinsmann’s team is better than the team that went to South Africa. The win over Ghana and the team’s performance against Portugal proved as much. Having made strides since 2010, this year’s team may be the U.S.’s best since the standard-setter that sent El Tri home from Jeonju.

Unfortunately for the U.S., the competition is tougher this year, too. Whereas the Americans won a weak group in 2010 and played Ghana in the second round, this year’s second place finish means they’re slotted against one of the most talented teams in the tournament – a team whose talent could, in time, be seen to rival those Brazil and Germany teams that sentthe U.S. out of previous World Cups.

source: AP
Belgium’s goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, center, helped lead Atlético Madrid to this springs UEFA Champions League final. Eden Hazard, left, was among the best attackers in the Barclays Premier League. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Belgium, the seeded team in Group H, is one of four teams to reach the knockout round with a 3-0-0 record. They have one of the best goalkeepers in the world (Thibaut Courtois), one of the game’s elite central defenders (Vincent Kompany, if healthy), and a 22-year-old attacking midfielder that helped lead his clubteam to Europe’s Champions League semifinals (Eden Hazard). Though they haven’t been to a major tournament in 12 years, Belgium has the talent to compete with any team still alive in this tournament.

Their entire starting XI will be made up of talents playing at major clubs in Europe’s biggest leagues. Over half of their team will see time in next season’s Champions League, and aside from central defender Daniel Van Buyten, none of the Red Devils’ major contributors are over 28 years old. As much people expect the Belgians to make an impact now, Brazil 2014 will be the first salvo from a Golden Generation that could redefine their country’s soccer. Belgium has only made it past the second round at one World Cup.

[ MORE: Chasing the narrative: What the numbers tell us (if anything) about Michael Bradley’s World Cup ]
[ MORE: The case for Geoff Cameron: should US defender start vs. Belgium? ]
[ MORE: So, how much of an upset would it be if the USMNT beat Belgium? ]

That, remarkably, may be where the U.S. has an edge. We don’t think of the Americans as an experienced group, but unlike the Belgians, many of them have been here before. The leadership of this U.S. team — the Clint Dempseys, DaMarcus Beasleys, Michael Bradleys, and Tim Howards of this squad — know what this pressure is like. They’ve not only played in a knockout round, but they know what it’s like to expected victory and come up short. Add in Jurgen Klinsmann, a coach that’s taken a team to the World Cup semifinals (as well as won a world title as a coach), and the U.S. may have enough “know-how” to defy expectations.

Those expectations say talent will win out on Tuesday in Salvador; that the U.S. will meet their Germany (2002) or Brazil (1994). But those expectations overlook Belgium, for all their talent, aren’t Germany or Brazil, yet. The Red Devils’ three, one-goal wins in a weak group hints they may be a tournament away from greatness. Meanwhile, the U.S.’s adaptability in the face of one of the competition’s toughest draws hints at a ability to transcend its talent.

Against Ghana, Portugal, and Germany, the U.S. showed it can play at a knockout round level. Against Algeria, Russia, and South Korea, Belgium never had to reach those heights to get out of their group.

[ MORE: Jurgen Klinsmann questions choice of Algerian referee for match against Belgium ]
[ MORE: Belgium injury update: Thomas Vermaelen out; Vincent Kompany still doubtful ]
[ MORE: You can probably stop referencing Belgium’s win vs US last year, okay? ]
[ MORE: Belgium reveal respect for US ‘keeper Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey ]

That doesn’t make the U.S. favorites. The world’s right to see the Americans as underdogs, though the quarterfinals are within reach. If the U.S. wins on Tuesday, the world won’t be shocked, nor will they need a series of breaks to pull it off. The result wouldn’t even be the biggest surprise of this competition. If Klinsmann’s team plays to its potential — like it already has in stretches during this tournament — it can beat Belgium.

With one minor upset, this U.S. team can create a legacy of its own. If they can show the Belgians are still one tournament away, the United States will return to the quarterfinals.

Daly collapses during match, treated for heat illness

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HOUSTON (AP) Houston Dash forward Rachel Daly collapsed during the final minute of a National Women’s Soccer League match against the Seattle Reign as temperatures climbed into the 90s.

The 25-year-old Daly was stretchered off the field and taken to the hospital, where the team said she was being treated for heat illness.

The temperature at BBVA Compass Stadium was 92 degrees at the 3 p.m. kickoff. The Reign won 2-0.

[ MORE: Perisic talking with Man Utd? ]

The NWSL issued a statement that said the league had worked with the Dash before the season to schedule any afternoon games early in the year to help avoid heat issues. The teams took a hydration break late in the match.

“We will immediately review these measures to prevent this situation from occurring in the future,” the statement said.

Reign coach Laura Harvey posted to Twitter: “Proud of the team today. Some of the hottest conditions I’ve seen. Road games are tough but that was crazy.”

MLS roundup: Outrageous dive, posts doom ‘Caps; Ramirez stays red hot

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Six matches are in the books on a busy Saturday in Major League Soccer, and five of them finished 1-0.

How they got there? Much different stories. With the Cali Clasico still to play, let’s dig into the five that followed Seattle 1-0 Portland.

[ MORE: Perisic to Man Utd? ]


Vancouver Whitecaps 0-1 DC United

It’s especially difficult to win on the road in Major League Soccer, unless the hosts fritter away four good chances off the woodwork — including a Cristian Techera PK — and give away a spot kick of their own. Lamar Neagle converted the 61st offering after a sinister dive from Jose Guillermo Ortiz. He was taken off soon after, and is probably going to miss sometime when the DisCo is done with him. Outrageous.

New York Red Bulls 2-1 New England Revolution

Not one, not two, nor three, but four New England players saw a low cross slide by them for Daniel Royer to finish as New York came from behind to take all three points at Red Bull Arena. Cody Cropper committed a gaffe that allowed Bradley Wright-Phillips to equalize after a Lee Nguyen PK had put the Revs ahead early.

Colorado Rapids 1-0 Sporting KC

Homegrown defender and University of Denver product Kortne Ford has his first MLS goal, as the Rapids surprised the Western Conference leaders on Saturday. SKC outshot Colorado by nearly 20 attempts (Shoulder shrug emoji).

Minnesota United 1-0 Orlando City

There were questions as to whether NASL superstar Christian Ramirez could translate his game to Major League Soccer.

Yes. The answer is yes.

Ramirez has eight goals in 13 MLS matches, and should be hearing his name from a certain Bruce Arena around Gold Cup time. Those USMNT dreams of last season should come true.

Bobby Shuttleworth made six saves for his third shutout of the season. All have come at home.

Real Salt Lake 1-0 Philadelphia Union

Joao Plata keeps shooting, and the tiny Ecuadorian menace keeps scoring, too. His 36th minute goal was enough for the hosts at Rio Tinto.

Raiola: Zlatan to “100 percent” stay in Europe for two seasons

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic may be 35 and coming off major knee surgery, but that isn’t stopping suitors from lining up across Europe.

[ MORE: Perisic to Man Utd? ]

Ibrahimovic’s agent, Mino Raiola, says that MLS is not an option for the Swede over the next two seasons. From Sky Sports:

“Many clubs have asked for Zlatan. He can play two more years and will stay in Europe, 100 per cent.”

It would make sense for Ibrahimovic to stay around Manchester United, where he is admired by Jose Mourinho and coming off a season that showed he’s still capable of contributing at a high level.

But he remains beloved in Italy, and would be effective for most clubs in the Top 5 leagues should he return at even 75 percent of the Zlatan we’ve seen regularly.

Report: Manchester United, Inter Milan keen on Perisic deal

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Manchester United wants Ivan Perisic, and both the player and his current club are all about it.

Perisic, 28, is ready to leave Inter Milan, and the Serie A mainstays are happy to accept $46 million for his services according to Sky Sports.

[ MORE: No China for Costa ]

Primarily a left winger, Perisic moved to Inter from Wolfsburg at the start of the 2015-16 season. He scored 10 goals and added nine assists in Serie A play this season, and has kept up his production pace since moving from the Bundesliga to Italy.

United needs stars and depth for its Champions League campaign, and Perisic would buttress an attack with Marcus Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan amongst others. He was a difference maker for Croatia at EURO 2016, and can do the same at Old Trafford.