The standard for the United States national team every four years will be to make the second round, now that the program has advanced to the knockout stages for a second straight tournament. But Belgium will be a huge test on Tuesday afternoon (4 p.m., ESPN) and might keep this impressive run from going forward.
The Yanks played Belgium in an international friendly last summer, losing 4-2. The Americans were a step slow, as they were outclassed by one of the better nations in Europe. Four days later, the United States rebounded for a 4-3 win over Germany at a sold-out RFK Stadium.
On Tuesday, they hope to flip that script, coming off a one-goal loss to the Germans last week. A win would mean a trip to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2002, when they lost narrowly to Germany.
In that tournament, the Americans started with a win in group stage followed by a tie and a loss — the same results as in this World Cup. In the second round, they played counterattack soccer en route to a 2-0 win over Mexico.
It wouldn't be a shock to see a similar formula here.
Three reasons the Americans will succeed ...
1. They believe they can win
This American side is playing well and consistently right now. Since that loss to Belgium last May, the national team has gone 20-4-3, including impressive victoriess over European opposition such as Bosnia-Herzegovina last fall and recently Turkey, not to mention the result against Portugal last week. Belgium isn't playing so well or as succinctly as they did last summer, lacking some spark in the final-third. Despite a rather lackluster showing against the Germans, the Americans are playing well and might be peaking at the right time.
2. Softer than a Belgian waffle
Belgium is battling injuries and form, particularly along the backline. Pivotal defenders Vincent Kompany and Arsenal captain Thomas Vermaelen are both doubtful. In addition, midfielder Steven Defour is out for this match after a red card in the final game of the group stage. This isn't an ideal starting 11 for Belgium and given the Americans' woeful attack so far this tournament, it might balance the pitch a bit more than last summer in Cleveland.
3. Current form
Belgium looked OK, but not great, with three opening-round wins in what was arguably the weakest group in the tournament. Meanwhile, the Americans were tested in the lead-up to the World Cup with an impressive 2-1 win over Turkey and another solid win over Nigeria. In three group matches, they faced two of the top four sides in the world and advanced anyway. They have a shot here if they can play somewhere between their dazzling style against Portugal and their woeful, pack-it-in mentality against Germany.
Three reasons the Americans will struggle ...
1. Belgium is just better
Eden Hazard, the star attacking midfielder for English giants Chelsea, and Romelu Lukaku, who scored 15 goals on loan for Everton last year, are incredibly dangerous up front. But Hazard has been a little erratic this tournament and Lukaku has been subbed out twice in group stage. Despite this, Belgium is still a good team and is bound to start clicking sooner rather than later. The Americans hope it will be after this tournament.
2. Continued backline woes
Geoff Cameron looked shaky in the center of the defense against Portugal, while Omar Gonzalez looked lost at times against Germany. The Americans have to be neat and tidy with Belgium's strong midfield and attack. They need to clear the ball, stay compact and not break down. It is easier said than done for a back four that has struggled the past year.
3. Altidore not ready for 90
The good news is Jozy Altidore is back and jogging after a hamstring pull in the first game of the group stage. He missed the next two games, but should be available for the Belgium match. With that being said, he likely won't be ready to start and the United States desperately needs a jolt to the attack. Perhaps he gets fully fit in time for the quarterfinals.
Follow Metro soccer writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.