Daniel Van Buyten

Top 10 defenders from the 2014 World Cup

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With forwards and midfielders already done, we move on the defenders, making an attempt to have representation across the back line. Continuing our World Cup review, here is PST’s top 10 defenders from Brazil 2014, in alphabetical order:

[ MORE from our 2014 World Cup review ]

Daley Blind, Netherlands – Ostensibly a left wing back, Blind also saw time at left center back and in midfield, all the while building on an opening match performance that helped the underdog Dutch rout reigning champion Spain. Only 24, Blind has yet to play outside the Netherlands, possibly explaining why we heard two different pronunciations of his last name, but after a standout World Cup, it may not be long before the Ajax defender has a chance to make that name abroad.

Stefan de Vrij, Netherlands – Another young player brought into the team by Louis van Gaal, de Vrij excelled on the right side of the Netherlands’ three-man central defense, a group that only conceded four goals in seven games. The 22-year-old led his team in tackles, interceptions, and tied Ron Vlaar for most aerial duels won. Scoring in the opener against Spain, de Vrij also tallied his first international goal, part of the Feyenoord man’s standout World Cup debut.

Vincent Kompany, Belgium – Coming off an erratic season with Manchester City, Kompany was back to his commanding self in Brazil, a tournament where he struggled through the knockout stage with a leg injury. Despite that ailment, Kompany showed why he’s considered one of the world’s best central defenders, with his athleticism proving vital next to the steady if more stoic Daniel Van Buyten.

Philipp Lahm, Germany – Though he started the tournament in central midfield, a switch back to his natural spot saw Lahm remind the world of the unmatched precision he brings to the right back position. That move proved particularly vital against Brazil, where his runs behind Selecao left back Marcelo helped blow open the teams’ semifinal.

Ezequiel Garay, Argentina – Before the final, Alejandro Sabella’s team had one of the highest possession rates in the tournament, making it all the more remarkable Garay led the competition in clearances per game (10, among those that make at least four appearances). While part of that had to do with the performance of those around him, the number speaks to the aerial presence the 27-year-old had in one of the tournament’s best defenses. Though the partner to his right changed half-way through the tournament, Garay remained a rock in the middle for Argentina.

Mats Hummels, Germany – After illness forced Hummels to miss Germany’s Round of 16 match against Algeria, Hummels gave a Man of the Match-caliber performance against France in the quarterfinal, with his work going forward helping Germany blow out Brazil in the next round. Though he was picked out by ESPN analyst Steve McManaman in the final for his lack of pace, the problem was only an issue against Lionel Messi-level players. The rest (read: vast majority) of the time, Hummels justified his reputation as one of the best central defenders in the game.

Gary Medel, Chile – The Bulldog’s contributions will be forgotten amid Chile’s Round of 16 exit, but strong in the air, tenacious on the ground, and incisive in the middle, Medel provided little hint that he’s actually a natural midfielder. Despite being only 5’7″, Medel led his team in aerial duels won, helping an aggressive Chile team hold its opponents to less than one goal per 90 minutes in Brazil.

Jan Vertonghen, Belgium – After the Red Devils’ opener against Algeria, Vertonghen was dropped in favor of Thomas Vermaelen, a move that lasted less then a half. Once back in the team, the Tottenham defender established himself as one of the best left backs in the tournament, scoring the game-winning goal against South Korea before providing a constant threat against the United States.

Ron Vlaar, Netherlands – Premier League fans will know Vlaar as the steady presence in the middle of Aston Villa’s often besieged defense. In Brazil, the veteran center back went from steady to standout, with his physical presence anchoring the middle of the Dutch’s three-man central defense. With young players on his left and right, Vlaar needed to be as decisive as he was reliable. Averaging nine clearances per game, the Villa rearguard anchored his team to a third place finish.

Pablo Zabaleta, Argentina – The Argentine veteran was steady, impactful in all phases of the game, but the fact that he makes this list is as much a testament to a lack of depth at right back as it is Zabaleta’s talent. Without a doubt, Zabaleta is one of the best right backs in the world, but players like Serge Aurier and Mathieu Debuchy looked better at times in Brazil. But as part of a team that played seven games, made it to the final, and had one of the best defenses in the tournament, it was difficult to overlook Zabaleta’s part. While he wasn’t always his normal, dynamic self, he was still one of the best right backs at the World Cup, a fact that speaks to the lofty standards he maintains at club-level.

Vincent Kompany’s “Excellent Adventure”: Belgian back applauds team run

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Belgium captain Vincent Kompany watched as his nation returned to the World Cup stage and spun off a run of four-straight wins, boosting the profile of Belgian soccer before slipping up in a 1-0 loss to Argentina in the quarterfinals Saturday.

“It was an excellent adventure,” Kompany said. “We gave everything we had to give. The rest is football. Perhaps in four years’ time, in Russia, we’ll have more luck, more experience. It’s worth remembering that our team is the youngest at this World Cup.”

Belgium swept through Group H by beating Russia, Algeria and South Korea (the latter in a 1-0 win where the winner was scored with just 10 men on the pitch). They then dominated the United States for most of a 2-1 extra time win before falling to Gonzalo Higuain’s early tally on Saturday.

The roster featured only one player older than 29, defender Daniel Van Buyten, and will be loaded up for future tournament runs. It certainly will sting the young team but it’s easy to forget they made this run without Christian Benteke.

Look out, UEFA.

At halftime: With Johnson out, Belgium, U.S. reach halftime scoreless — FOLLOW LIVE

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The first 45 minutes have made it clear why the Belgians are favorites, but with a handful of near-chances of their own, the resiliency the U.S. showed through group stage has kept the teams scoreless at the halftime whistle. With Argentina waiting in the next round, nothing has changed between the upstart Americans and Belgium’s Golden Generation, with the teams set to kickoff the second half at 0-0.

FOLLOW LIVE: Soccerly’s real-time match center

Goals: See “0-0”, above.

Other key moments:

1′ – Near disaster for the U.S., with an errant Omar Gonzalez pass and some miscommunication between Geoff Cameron and Alejandro Bedoya allowing Belgium to get out on the counter. Cutting in front of Gonzalez, Divock Origi takes aim at Tim Howard’s far post from the right of goal. A kick save concedes a corner but keeps the U.S. even.

18′ – This is earlier than Geoff Cameron would have wanted to take a yellow, but trying to hold the ball in the U.S.’s attacking third, the U.S. midfielder takes out Dries Mertens. The call is an easy one. Cameron’s in the book, leaving him at least 72 minutes to avoid a second card.

20′ – The U.S. has struggled on set pieces, but after a corner conceded by Jan Vertonghen, the team generates a near-chance. Attacking a near post ball, Cameron flicks the Graham Zusi corner into space at the far post.  Clint Dempsey, however, seems a step behind the play and can’t get to what would have been a golden opportunity.

21′ – It’s not pretty, but a series of determined touches from Dempsey and Michael Bradley generates a shot for “Deuce” just inside the penalty area. The left-footed try poses no problems for Thibaut Courtois, but the attack shows the U.S. coming into the game.

23′ – Another midfield giveaway, and nearly another nightmare for the U.S. With a bad touch near the center line, Zusi evokes memories of Rico Clark, allowing Vertonghen to lead the Belgian on a counter. A touch to the left, a Kevin De Bruyne move back to the right, and De Bruyne has a shot on goal, one he pulls wide of the left post.

26′ – Fabian Johnson’s overrun on the right, allowing Belgium to play Vertonghen behind the defense. Bounding out of midfield, Marouane Fellaini’s in front of goal, but the pass across is blocked by DaMarcus Beasley, preventing the Belgians from challenging Howard’s goal.

30′ – Now Johnson’s down. After a half of sprinting up the flank all half to try and get behind Vertonghen, the right back’s hamstring gives out. Waving to the sideline, Johnson makes it clear: He can’t go on. Klinsmann could move Cameron to right back and bring on Kyle Beckerman, but DeAndre Yedlin gets the call instead. Only 20 years old, the Seattle defender has to replace one of the U.S.’s better players at this year’s World Cup.

38′ – Yedlin nearly makes his mark. Carrying the ball down the right, the replacement fullback lofts a cross to the far post for Dempsey. Matched up against Daniel Van Buyten, Dempsey doesn’t have much of a chance, but the crowd has reason to pause before the big Belgian clears the cross.

42′ – The game’s opening up, with another ball into the box from Yedlin quickly turned into an attack at the other end. After dealing with that threat, the U.S. is carrying the ball out of its own end, with Cameron playing forward for Dempsey. When Vincent Kompany takes out the U.S. captain at the ankles, the Belgian center back becomes the second man in the book.

Question for the second half:

– Who changes first? – The numbers say the Belgians have generated more (and better) chances (9-3, shots; 3-1, shots on goal), but this may be the game the U.S. wants to play. Will Jurgen Klinsmann eventually open things up? Or, for that matter, will Marc Wilmots not want to risk one of these U.S. attacks coming good? As time ticks away, will the Belgian coach eventually sacrifice some of his team’s chances to keep from going behind?

– Will Fabian Johnson be missed? – He’s been one of the U.S. difference makers in Brazil, but his injury has given way to a talented but inexperienced replacement. How DeAndre Yedlin performs opposite Eden Hazard will determine whether Fabian Johnson’s injury comes to define this match.

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.

Belgium injury update: Thomas Vermaelen out; Vincent Kompany still doubtful

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The health of Belgium’s defense has been one of the major talking points ahead to the team’s Tuesday Round of 16 match against the United States. Unfortunately for Red Devils’ fans, one of the fitness doubts that team carried out of its World Cup group stage has been resolved in the negative. Thomas Vermaelen, a potential starter at left back, has been ruled out, head coach Marc Wilmots confirmed on Monday.

While the Belgium boss said the veteran defender should be ready if his team makes the quarterfinals, the defender’s hamstring will keep him out of tomorrow’s match in Salvador. Through the tournament’s first 270 minutes, Vermaelen’s only been able to play 45, toughing out the first half against Russia after incurring his injury warming up for his team’s second match.

On Monday, Wilmots confirmed his vice-captain and been ruled out. Here’s the Belgian head coach, also speaking asked about midfielder Marouane Fellaini, from FIFA.com:

“Thomas … has not enough time to be fit by tomorrow. He will be fit if we make the quarterfinals. He will return to full squad training in a day or two. Marouane is fine, no problem.”

Vermaelen wasn’t the only Belgian injury doubt coming off the team’s last match, but as Wilmots confirmed in the same press conference, little about captain Vincent Kompany’s status has changed since he was held out on Thursday against South Korea:

“I don’t know about Vincent and whether he will be fit,” said [Wilmots]. “We will see how it evolves.

That leaves U.S. fans in the awkward position of rooting for an injury, but this is Vincent Kompany we’re talking about. The man’s always in the conversation as one of the best central defenders in the world. If he can’t go on Tuesday, U.S. fans stand a better chance of seeing their team reach its third quarterfinal.

Not that Kompany’s replacements would be bums. If the Manchester City star is out, we’ll likely see Daniel Van Buyten and Nicolas Lombaerts in the middle. Out wide, Jan Vertonghen will get the call on the left, while Toby Alderweireld