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Can Belgium become a world-beater?
By Leander Schaerlaeckens
Belgian winger Eden Hazard was named as player of the year in France's Ligue 1 after leading Lille to the 2010-11 title.
Charles de Gaulle once called Belgium, a country essentially made up of leftover scraps from other countries, an "aberration of history." Within that aberration, there's another, even more unlikely anomaly unfurling these days. Despite numbering only 11 million, living in a nation roughly the size of Maryland and not having a particularly noteworthy track record in producing world-class soccer players, the Belgians have somehow produced what amounts to a near monopoly on tomorrow's superstars.
An improbable assortment of potential world-beaters has bubbled up from all across the land, flooding the international market for soccer talent. They are led by French champion Lille's 20-year-old winger Eden Hazard, the defending French league player of the year. "Hazard is the greatest Belgian talent," Belgium and Everton midfielder Marouane Fellaini told Belgian television in June. "He has everything necessary to become great. It would be stupid not to take advantage of that."
In Hazard's wake, Belgium's talent pool features attackers Romelu Lukaku (age 18, Chelsea), Moussa Dembele (24, Fulham), Nacer Chadli (21, FC Twente), and Jelle Vossen (22, Genk); midfielders Axel Witsel (22, Benfica), Steven Defour (23, Porto), Dries Mertens (24, PSV), Mats Rits (18, Ajax), and Kevin de Bruyne (23, Genk); defenders Vincent Kompany (25, Manchester City), Jan Vertonghen (24, Ajax), Thomas Vermaelen (25, Arsenal), and Toby Alderweireld (22, Ajax); and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois (19, Chelsea -- on loan to Atletico Madrid) as well as the aforementioned Fellaini (23).
But before you pencil Belgium in for world domination at the next World Cup, take note of Fellaini's choice of words -- "Stupid not to take advantage." Belgium's golden generation, highlighted by Hazard and Lukaku, may be highly gifted, but whether it will ever collectively put all that talent to good use for its country is very much in doubt.
The cornerstones of this Belgian side have hinted at their capacity for greatness at the 2008 Beijing Olympics by unsettling a stacked Brazil side in the opening game and knocking out Italy to reach the final four. And confidence has soared. Head coach Georges Leekens said in 2010 that Belgium "will be at least as good as the Netherlands" by the next World Cup. Last March, former Belgium standout forward Luc Nilis told a Belgian newspaper that "there's a 100 percent certainty we'll make it to the 2014 World Cup." Belgium has since been drawn into a tough qualifying group with Croatia, Serbia, Scotland, Macedonia and Wales. In another tricky qualifying group for Euro 2012, Belgium put a big dent in its chances by drawing 1-1 away to Azerbaijan on Friday, however, and now sits in third place with 12 points after eight of 10 games. The team is one point behind second-placed Turkey, but the Turks do have a game in hand in the battle for the qualifying playoff spot behind group winner Germany.
In Belgium, things are never as simple as putting a talented group of players together and giving them time to gel. As the Diables Rouges -- the Red Devils -- have transitioned from a weak generation that interrupted the team's streak of qualifying for six straight World Cups through 2002, the new generation has clashed with its predecessors, breeding considerable animosity that has spilled out into the press. In 2010, the team's medical staff quit in unison over the new generation's diva-ish behavior, claiming it was frequently asked to vouch for made-up injuries so that players could go out instead of practicing.
The team plays within the parameters of a hapless federation, which has made poor choices for national team coach in the past, has failed to get every game broadcasted on national television and once played the Slovakian national anthem before a game with Slovenia (the proper anthem was played during half time).
Wedged between the French and Dutch, the Belgians are a self-deprecating and largely unpatriotic people, who identify more with their region or province than the country itself. This has fostered a climate of athletic disinterest. One of the few things all Belgians can agree on is that they have traditionally not cared much about the national team. The federation has made considerable attempts at rekindling the sentiments of the 1980s, when Belgium reached the final of the 1980 Euro tournament and the semifinals of the 1986 World Cup, through an expensive marketing campaign trotting out the heroes of yore. But stadiums remain half-full for Belgium games. The federation even saw itself forced to make people buying tickets for the Belgium sections -- which inevitably serve as de-facto overflow for the sold-out away stands -- and sign contracts that they will root for Belgium. Telling for the confusion and enmity among the mostly French- and Dutch-speakers is that those few who do turn out for the national team do not cheer their team on with chants of "Belgique" or "België" but "Belgium," opting for the neutral English.
For decades, rumors have swirled that there's a quota system in place demanding that coaches strike a certain balance between call-ups from the rival Dutch-speaking Flemish and French-speaking Walloon factions that make up the country along with a small German-speaking minority.
Therein the national team reflects Belgium as a whole, at least. The Belgian provinces bounced around between different kingdoms and empires for centuries before the Flemish and Walloon regions managed to gain independence from the Netherlands in 1830 and were lumped together as a new country (the German bit wasn't added until after World War I as reparation for the horrors). But in recent years, the make-shift nation has teetered perilously on the brink of dissolution as it has failed to form a fully functional government since elections took place in 2007. The Flemish and Walloons don't get along anymore, as the economic balance of power has shifted to the Flemish while the Walloons insist on retaining their power. Which is all to say there might not be a Belgian national team by the time all that talent comes to a full bloom, instead carving it up into two or three teams. Flemish separatists have already called for Flanders to field its own "national" team.
Belgium head coach Georges Leekens will guide the Red Devils throughout a tough World Cup qualifying group that includes Croatia, Serbia, Scotland and Wales.
In the interim, Belgium has started playing good soccer. Under Leekens, the team has sported a disciplined yet adventurous 4-3-3 formation that maximizes its many weapons, even if it is still liable to big lapses defensively. This is rather a turnaround from Leekens' predecessor Rene Vandereycken, who was in charge from 2006 to April 2009, when he was replaced by a caretaker and then Dick Advocaat, who was poached by Russia six months later. Under Vandereycken, Belgium played the stodgy defensive brand of soccer it always has, but that is incompatible with the new generation. "We don't decide to play an attacking game," explained Kompany to a Belgian paper in March. "It's just in our genes."
Leekens has already seen his contract renewed through the 2014 World Cup. "This group has a lot of talent, but we need to get away from that alone," he told Belgian television in March. "To get results, we need character, the right mindset, cunningness and intelligence, too."
Belgium has made a start of putting those elements together. Of late, the Belgian public has even started to take note, however skeptically. "We've gotten the public interested in the Red Devils again and we mean something again," said Leekens. "We're the petits Belges [little Belgians] but we're getting bigger and bigger."
For Belgium's embarrassment of riches to avoid plain embarrassment, however, they'll have to heed their national creed -- "Strength through unity" -- at long last.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @LeanderESPN.
The U.S.A. lost their third game in a row under Klinsman and looked very unimpressive yet again. Game could have easily been a 3-0 loss had it not been for the goalkeeper Howard. I guess the U.S. did learn about a lot of players who have no business being on the national team.
Jurgen Klinsmann winless as U.S. falls
BRUSSELS -- The U.S. national soccer team lost to Belgium 1-0 Tuesday, leaving Jurgen Klinsmann without a win in three games since he was hired as the Americans' coach.
U.S.-Belgium Report Card
The U.S. was resoundingly outplayed by Belgium, losing 1-0 in Brussels. It's yet another lesson for Jurgen Klinsmann and his players, writes Leander Schaerlaeckens. Grades
This was the first road game for the U.S. since Klinsmann came aboard. The Americans earlier tied Mexico and lost to Costa Rica.
Nicolas Lombaerts' half volley in the 55th minute was the only goal in an exhibition game dominated by the Belgians on the rain-soaked field.
"It was an interesting game for both sides," Klinsmann said. "For the first 25 minutes the U.S. had a good passing game going, but then the individual Belgian class started to show. The players have learned a lot from the game."
Klinsmann, a former German star and coach, is looking to assemble the players who will play in the World Cup qualifiers that start next June. He pointed to such promising players as Juan Agudelo, Jose Torres, Brek Shea and Timmy Chandler.
An inexperienced U.S. team rarely threatened, and second-half substitutes Agudelo and Kyle Beckerman did little to energize play.
Still, the Americans had their best chance five minutes before the end. A midfield cross found its way to Edu, who headed the ball past Mignolet. But the referee disallowed the goal because Clarence Goodson was ruled to have handled the ball inside the box.
The U.S. played aggressively only in the opening minutes. In the sixth minute, Clint Dempsey's free kick was fumbled by Belgian goalkeeper Simon Mignolet. Ten minutes later Torres curled a free kick from the right just past the far post.
In the 25th minute, Timmy Simons struck a low ball from the right edge of the area that U.S. goalie Tim Howard deflected. Seven minutes later, Dries Mertens crossed the ball into the area to an unmarked Marouane Fellaini, whose shot was stopped by Howard.
Belgium coach Georges Leekens said the U.S. played well for the first 15 minutes.
"Then we got a grip and we really wanted to win at home after the Azarbaijan match," he said.
Belgium drew against Azerbaijan on Friday, weakening its chances of qualifying for next year's European Championship.
Belgium: Simon Mignolet, Laurent Ciman, Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany, Nicolas Lombaerts, Timmy Simons, Eden Hazard (Marvin Ogunjimi, 61), Marouane Fellaini (Romelu Lukaku, 61), Igor De Camargo, Axel Witsel, Dries Mertens.
United States: Tim Howard, Steve Cherundolo, Timmy Chandler, Clarence Goodson, Carlos Bocanegra, Clint Dempsey, Robbie Rogers (Kyle Beckerman, 46), Maurice Edu, Jozy Altidore (Juan Agudelo, 46), Jose Torres (Jeff Larentowicz, 75), Brek Shea.
U.S. to face Ecuador in Oct. 11 friendly
CHICAGO -- The U.S. soccer team will play Ecuador in an exhibition on Oct. 11 at Harrison, N.J., three days after the Americans face Honduras in Miami.
Because the game is on a FIFA international fixture date, most players should be available for the match. A possible complication is a pair of Major League Soccer matches the following day, with Dallas at Chicago and D.C. United at Vancouver.
The Americans are winless in three games since Jurgen Klinsmann replaced Bob Bradley as coach, tying Mexico and losing to Costa Rica and Belgium.
"We want to expose the team to as many styles as possible, and we know the quality of Ecuador," Klinsmann said.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard made his debut in a 1-0 win over Ecuador in March 2002. Five years later, Landon Donovan scored all the American goals in a 3-1 victory against Ecuador.
Ecuador qualified for the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, but missed the 2010 tournament. It opens qualifying for 2014 at home against Venezuela on Oct. 7.
The Americans hope to play a pair of exhibitions in Europe, on Nov. 11 and 15, as they prepare for the start of World Cup qualifying in June.
U.S. eager to give Klinsmann first win
By Jeff Carlisle
In the early days of his tenure, the focus of U.S. men's national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann has been on just about everything but results, and with good reason. There are new players to observe, a new style to implement, and the goals are mostly of the long-range variety.
But results, and more specifically wins, do have their uses when placed in their proper context. And after recording a tie and two losses so far under Klinsmann, the U.S. is keen to get back to winning ways, starting with Saturday's match against a short-handed Honduras side.
To be sure, victories in friendlies can obscure significant problems. But they can also inspire confidence and provide reassurance that the team is on an upward trajectory. And more than anything, the U.S. will be eager to put together a complete performance this weekend.
Veteran defender Carlos Bocanegra will feature in the U.S. backline in Saturday's international friendly against Honduras.
"I think the biggest frustration is we all felt we should have beaten Costa Rica handily," said U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra, about last month's 1-0 loss to the Ticos. "We played well, that was a positive, but we do need to finish teams off, so that's definitely on our minds. We are building towards next summer in [World Cup] qualifying, but obviously we want to get results. That's important to us as well."
There have been signs of progress under Klinsmann, but they've only revealed themselves intermittently. Some individual performances have caught the eye. There have been some moments of sparkling attacking play, even as players try to adapt to Klinsmann's methods.
"I felt like we got into some pretty good positions and maybe that final ball was a little bit lacking," said midfielder Maurice Edu. "But I think overall we showed a level of maturity in the way we went out and tried to really impose ourselves on the game and on our opponents."
Despite these improvements, the U.S. has scored only a solitary goal under Klinsmann. With Jose Torres, Stuart Holden and Landon Donovan all missing the match through a variety of injuries, things don't figure to get any easier against the Catrachos. Yet according to Bocanegra, the German has not veered from the concepts he prizes the most. Among those is an ability to play out of the back and build sustained attacks to the point that the U.S. is playing mostly in the opponent's half. The Americans have also continued to work on playing cleanly out of tight spaces, something that was a problem in the last outing, a 1-0 loss to Belgium.
One aspect of the American game that will bear watching is whether Klinsmann employs one or two holding midfielders. Against a Costa Rica side content to bunker in and hit the U.S. on the counter, the Americans utilized Edu as the lone player protecting the back four. In the second half against Belgium, Kyle Beckerman slotted in alongside Edu in a bid to add more defensive solidity.
Maurice Edu feels he is well-suited to the role of sole holding midfielder that coach Jurgen Klinsmann has implemented within U.S. formations for recent matches.
"We definitely have to be flexible to play both of those systems," said Bocanegra. "We're working on playing out of the back and not just worrying about defending so much; also being able to attack out of these formations."
Like Costa Rica last month, Honduras is missing many of its best players, with Stoke City midfielder Wilson Palacios, Celtic's Emilio Izaguirre and forward David Suazo among the absentees. This points to Klinsmann utilizing just one holding player, a position that Edu indicated he's happy to play.
"It's a defined role, and I think the last two games when I played in that role, it suited me," he said. "It kind of made my job a little bit easier with the guys in front of me. I was just trying to protect the back four, break up plays and start the attack."
The hope is that employing such a formation will free up more players to get forward. Jozy Altidore has been on fire lately for club side AZ Alkmaar, scoring seven goals in 12 league and cup matches. But oftentimes during the Klinsmann era the U.S. forward has been left on an island, so one sign of progress will be to see if the Americans can get more numbers into the attack and at the right time so as not to leave themselves vulnerable in the back.
"People are looking sharp in training this week," said Bocanegra. "We're working hard, like always. But I think as well, the forwards are hungrier. Any time that a coach says he's stressing the attack, or says something about the defense in the press, that's something where as a professional athlete, that motivates you a little bit. I think these guys will come out with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder and we'll be fine."
Against a Honduras team likely to replicate Costa Rica's counterattacking style, that extra dose of attitude may be precisely what is needed for the U.S. to finally break out and give Klinsmann his first victory as U.S. coach.
U.S. men inconsistent in friendly win
By Jeff Carlisle
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- The United States' friendly match against Honduras was a study in soccer irony. The Americans have played better games during the Jurgen Klinsmann era, but this time they managed to break through and claim a 1-0 victory, the German's first as U.S. manager.
Clint Dempsey tallied the lone goal for the Americans, their first since Robbie Rogers scored against Mexico in August. In the 36th minute, the U.S. forward displayed some nifty footwork to free himself after Brek Shea's cross found him in the box and hammered home his shot with authority.
Afterward, Klinsmann didn't look especially overjoyed at securing his inaugural win as U.S. coach but admitted that victories do make his job a bit easier.
"It's good to have the feeling that we're doing the right thing," he said, "but it's also good to have the feeling that we're getting the results in."
On a night when the U.S. defense was shaky at times, Tim Howard proved solid in goal with a number of top saves.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard was a bit more effusive in his description of what the win meant to the players.
"It's huge for all of us," he said. "You don't ever want to go a long period of time without winning. & We're trying to set a foundation, but we also have to win, and that was the focus coming into these fixture dates."
That said, the U.S. performance could best be described as ragged. Howard was called on far too often to keep the visitors at bay as the Americans -- defender Michael Orozco Fiscal in particular -- struggled to cope with the height of Carlo Costly and the pace of Jerry Bengston.
The U.S. also was hampered by some suspect passing out of the back on a field made slick by steady rain and affected by heavy winds, with some square passes in its own half getting easily picked off by the pressing Honduran side.
"I think it took us a little bit to get to a higher pace," Klinsmann said. "The first 20 minutes was a bit too static movement-wise but also because Honduras did a good job there, pushing high up."
After struggling to get its attack in gear, the U.S. seized control midway through the first half. Dempsey, playing ostensibly as a forward in support of Jozy Altidore, began to impose his will on the match. The left-sided duo of Shea and Timothy Chandler began to make some headway, with the latter going close in the 21st minute.
Yet much like last month's game against Costa Rica, the U.S. looked vulnerable on the counterattack. Costly stung the palms of Howard in the 27th minute, and the U.S. seemed oddly susceptible to some long balls over the top.
The U.S. soon regrouped, however, and broke on top for the first time in the Klinsmann era. A short corner between Steve Cherundolo and Shea was initially rebuffed, but upon regaining possession, Cherundolo fed Shea again and his cross went through a thicket of legs and was eventually fired home by Dempsey.
The second half saw some more inconsistent play from the Americans. The U.S. squandered some clear chances to put the game away, with Shea's miss in the 50th minute after good work from Altidore the most egregious.
Honduras continued to pose problems for the U.S., as the Americans never really controlled the game's tempo. Howard had to be at his best in the 73rd minute when he saved a Honduran blast at full stretch. The U.S. managed to see the remainder of the game out, without incident, to get the win.
And that will be the takeaway from this encounter. The U.S. secured a victory even on a night when its passing and team defending were far short of its best. These are the kinds of matches that the U.S. can expect during World Cup-type situations -- tight, competitive affairs in which mentality is often the difference between winning and losing. The fact that U.S prevailed bodes well.
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No doubt, Klinsmann will expect more fluidity from an attack that was missing the likes of Landon Donovan, Stuart Holden and Jose Torres. But Honduras was short-handed as well, leaving the U.S. manager to be happy with the win but aware that much more work needs to be done.
Player ratings: (1-10; 1 = low, 10 = high)
G Tim Howard, 9 -- With the U.S. defense looking wobbly early on, Howard came up big when it mattered, including a one-on-one save from Bengston in the 19th minute. He continued his fine form with more stellar work in the second half.
D Timothy Chandler, 5.5 -- Looked more comfortable playing left back in this match than he did against Belgium and was more of a threat going forward. Still needs to be cleaner on the ball as well as with his positioning.
D Carlos Bocanegra, 5.5 -- Was solid in his defending but had some suspect passes out of the back, which led to some opportunities for Honduras.
D Michael Orozco Fiscal, 3.5 -- Recovered to make some vital clearances but struggled mightily in his one-on-one defending, both in the air and on the ground. His touch helped set up Dempsey's strike, but overall a performance to forget.
D Steve Cherundolo, 6 -- A quiet but effective performance. Helped spring Shea in the buildup to Dempsey's goal. Had some decent set piece deliveries as well.
M Kyle Beckerman, 5 -- Had difficulty coping with the tempo of the game in the opening minutes but eventually found his feet. Doesn't look to have the range to play the lone holding midfielder role, however.
M Brek Shea, 6 -- Wasn't as clean on the ball as he needs to be but combined well at times with Chandler down the left side. His cross from the opposite flank helped set up Dempsey's goal. He'll have nightmares about his 50th minute miss from Altidore's pass.
Clint Dempsey confidently led the U.S. attack against Honduras and should have been credited with two goals on the night.
M Maurice Edu, 5 -- The further up the field he plays, the less comfortable he looks, as his touches and passing were off. Did some valuable work tracking back to help Beckerman.
M Danny Williams, 4.5 -- Played with plenty of energy, but there was little end product to his endeavors, especially with regard to his distribution. Should have done better when presented with a clear chance in the first half, although he forced a good save from Donis Escobar in the 50th minute.
F Clint Dempsey, 8 -- Proved to be the key offensive spark. Showed off fantastic close control on his goal, and his finish was class as well. Thought he had a second goal in the 84th minute that was waived off for a foul.
F Jozy Altidore, 5 -- A mixed bag. Continued to show off his improvement with his back to goal but lost too many duels when taking opponents on. Should have had an assist in the second half, only for Shea to flub his chance with the goal begging. Even on that play, his poor first touch took away a chance to shoot.
D Oguchi Onyewu, 6 -- Nearly celebrated his return with a goal in the 66th minute only to put his rebound attempt high. Otherwise, looked reasonably composed and helped tighten things up in the back.
M DaMarcus Beasley, 6 -- Showed off some good speed and gave the U.S. a boost of energy when needed. Nearly latched on to a long clearance in the 88th minute but shot tamely at goal.
M Michael Bradley, 5.5 -- Took up good positions defensively but rarely got on the ball, save for a late one-two with Dempsey and an even later shot on goal.
D Jonathan Spector, 6 -- Provided a steady defensive presence when he came in, and his crossing caused the Honduran defense problems.
F Juan Agudelo, 6 -- Showed good hustle late in the buildup to Dempsey's goal that was disallowed, keeping the play alive for Spector's cross.