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.

Watch Live: Six Premier League games at 10am

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Six Premier League games are live at 10 a.m. ET with Arsenal and Man City in action, and you can watch every single game live online as some huge clashes are set up across the table.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live here ] 

Southampton host Wolves, Aston Villa travel to Brighton, Man City host Crystal Palace, Bournemouth and Norwich square off in a relegation six-pointer, West Ham host Everton and Sheffield United travel to Arsenal.

[ MORE: Sign up for NBC Sports Gold ] 

You can access additional games by purchasing the new “Premier League Pass” via NBC Sports Gold which also includes an extensive selection of shoulder programming such as Premier League News, Premier League Today and NBC Sports originals such as Premier League Download and much more.

[ STREAM: “Goal Rush” here ]

For those of you familiar with the Premier League Breakaway Show during busy days (Boxing Day, New Year’s Day, Championship Sunday etc.) in the PL, this will follow that model of being similar to the NFL RedZone with action shown from all of the games in the 10 a.m. ET window. More info is available here.

The schedule for the six games at 10 a.m. ET is below and you can stream each game live by clicking on the links.


10 a.m. ET: Arsenal v. Sheffield United – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Brighton v. Aston Villa – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Man City v. Crystal Palace – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Norwich v. Bournemouth – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Southampton v. Wolves – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: West Ham v. Everton – NBC Sports Gold [STREAM]

Watford, Tottenham in stalemate

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Watford and Tottenham Hotspur drew 0-0 at Vicarage Road on Saturday as Paulo Gazzaniga saved Troy Deeney‘s penalty kick.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Both teams had big chances to win it in a scrappy, feisty game but Nigel Pearson and Jose Mourinho both seemed fairly happy with a point at the final whistle.

With the point Watford move two points clear of the relegation zone on 23 points, while Spurs are eight points off the top four.


3 things we learned

1. Spurs not able without Kane: Tottenham didn’t muster a shot on target in the second half and they lacked cutting edge in attack. There were plenty of nice touches from Lamela, Dele Alli and Son but you didn’t feel like a goal was inevitable when they attacked. That is because Harry Kane is out injured and Spurs have now gone three Premier League games without a goal and Kane has missed two and a bit of those. That is no coincidence. Mourinho will now be knocking on Daniel Levy’s door to bring in a new striker in January to bolster his lackluster attack.

2. Watford steady but miss big chance: They are unbeaten in their last six games in the Premier League, the first time they’ve ever done that, but Pearson and Watford will be feeling a little miffed they didn’t make it four wins on the trot. Deeney’s missed penalty kick was the big moment but Watford hung in there, battled hard and although they didn’t create too many clear cut chances, they looked solid and steady. Watford play Villa, Everton and Brighton in their next three ahead of a really tough run of games so they need to get points on the board as quick as they can while they’re in this good form.

3. Tottenham’s defense still shaky: Don’t let the clean sheet fool you. Tottenham were still all over the place at the back. Vertonghen gave away a penalty kick, Alderweireld was bullied by Deeney and their full backs had a tough time locking down Ismaila Sarr and Gerard Deulofeu. With Kane out and goals hard to come by Mourinho will need to rely on his defense to keep plenty of clean sheets if they’re going to have any chance of finishing in the top four or going deep in the Champions League. He won’t be holding his breath.

Man of the Match: Ismaila Sarr – Could be a big blow for for Watford as he seemed to pull his hamstring late on, as the Senegal winger gave Tanganga a torrid outing. His pace, power and clever passing and crosses caused Tottenham problems.


Early on Lucas Moura called for a penalty kick for a handball on Craig Cathcart but played continued and Gerard Deulofeu broke free but his shot was just wide.

Spurs started brightly and looked dangerous through Son but Watford were also a threat on the counter once they got going as Ismaila Sarr blazed over from a good position.

Son’s deflected shot was well saved by Foster and the game turned into an edgy, disjointed affair with plenty of yellow cards dished out.

Dele Alli then did brilliant to play in Moura but Foster saved well as Tottenham’s front four were looking bright and interchanging well as Son smashed a shot over.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Both teams had big chances after the break as Doucoure was played in by Sarr but couldn’t convert, then Dele Alli nodded Son’s superb cross over the bar. Troy Deeney’s shot was deflected wide as the game turned into an open encounter.

Given the touchy nature of the game it was inevitable a melee would break out at one point as Doucoure and Winks were both booked for their part in a large scuffle between both sets of players.

Son then raced clear but smashed over the bar from a tight angle but Watford then passed up a glorious chance to go ahead. Jan Vertonghen was booked for a handball when blocking Gerard Deulofeu’s shot and after a VAR check confirmed the penalty kick, Gazzaniga saved Deeney’s spot kick to keep the scores level.

Sarr pulled up injured which will be a big worry for Watford but Ignacio Pussetto came on to make his Premier League debut and made a big contribution.

Late on Spurs created a couple of half chances as Lamela couldn’t bundle the ball over the line twice, with Pussetto the hero as he cleared, as Watford held on for a point.

Klopp hits out at Man United’s style of play

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Liverpool host Manchester United this Sunday (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) as the Premier League leaders welcome their bitter rivals to Anfield.

This will be feisty, on and off the pitch, as United hope to put a spanner in the works of Liverpool’s procession towards the 2019-20 Premier League title.

These comments from Jurgen Klopp about Man United’s counter-attacking style of play could spice things up in the dugout too.

“It’s strange when you play against a high, high quality team as United still are, and they play the way they play,” Klopp said. “It makes life really difficult. We had it with Tottenham. That’s not normal, how can you expect that? On the other side the counter attacks are of the highest level in the world.

“I don’t say they only counter attack but it’s a main thing they do. People may want to see that as criticism, it’s not, but it’s just a description of the situation that makes life for us more difficult.”

With Liverpool 14 points clear at the top of the Premier League table, now is a good time for Klopp to tell other teams how they should be playing. That is what he is doing here.

Liverpool’s style is absorbing and easy on the eye. Their high-pressing and speedy attack sees them swarm over teams and totally involve their fans and it is fun to watch. Man United this weekend, and Spurs last weekend, know they can’t match Liverpool’s well-oiled, blood and thunder machine so they sit back and counter. And that can be almost as exciting when it’s right.

Can you blame opposing teams for playing this way against Liverpool? No. But what Klopp is trying to do here is suggest that the quality of players United and Spurs possess means they should be more ambitious and on the front foot rather than playing on the counter. What a rascal.

Klopp isn’t quite stirring things up but from a position of strength he is lending his view on the tactics of other teams and what he would do if he was in charge of them.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer won’t change his plan against Liverpool. Everybody wants to play like Liverpool but Man United have a different style and that worked well to nullify Liverpool’s threat in their 1-1 draw at Old Trafford earlier this season. With Marcus Rashford a major doubt that will be tough to replicate on Sunday but as Klopp’s Liverpool go all out for the win, United will happy to sit back and counter.

Watch Live: Watford v. Tottenham

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Watford host Tottenham Hotspur at Vicarage Road on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) as the Hornet aim to stay red hot and out of the relegation zone.

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New manager Nigel Pearson has won four of his first six games in charge of Watford, including the last three on the trot, and they have dragged themselves out of the bottom three for the first time this season.

As for Spurs and Jose Mourinho, he’d love form like that as they continue to struggled without the injured Harry Kane and have gone three games without a win in the Premier League. Tottenham are nine points off the top four heading into this game.

In team news Watford are unchanged from the win at Bournemouth.

Spurs start Erik Lamela, Giovani Lo Celso and Heung-Min Son in support of Lucas Moura, while Japhet Tanganga starts once again. New signing Gedson Fernandes is on the bench.

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