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Here are the things we know for sure about Belgium, the United States men's national team's Round of 16 opponent and one of the most intriguing teams left in the World Cup:
- Belgium is perhaps the 10th-best team in the world. They're ranked 11th by FIFA, 9th by Nate Silver's SPI, and 14th by ELO.
- Belgium is talented. 15 of 23 players on the World Cup roster play for Champions League teams.
- Belgium was killing teams at this time last year. They went undefeated in their 10 UEFA World Cup qualifying games.
- Belgium was tipped as a World Cup "dark horse" so early and so unanimously that they ceased to meet the actual definition of a dark horse long before the tournament began. People think they're going to go far at this tournament.
The Belgian team has seen a sudden and difficult-to-explain influx of talent in the last three years.
They were a disappointment as a soccer nation in the early-2000s — failing to qualify for the 2004, 2008, and 2012 Euros, as well as the 2006 and 2010 World Cups. Then, all at once, top-tier players started coming out of the woodwork.
Manchester City's Vincent Kompany, who could miss the U.S. game with a groin injury, is one of the best defenders in the Premier League. Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois are two of the best players in the world at their positions. Romelu Lukaku is one of the most sought-after young strikers in Europe.
It's a roster full of players who play major roles at big clubs, and pretty much all of them emerged in the last three years.
But this doesn't really directly answer the question: How good is Belgium?
They dominated their World Cup qualifying group with eight wins and two draws. But five of those wins came against Scotland, Wales, and Macedonia. They've been shaky in friendlies since UEFA qualifying ended — losing to Colombia and Japan, drawing Ivory Coast, and beating Sweden and Tunisia — but you probably can't really take anything away from that.
In this World Cup they've been mildly disappointing, despite three wins in Group H. They needed an 80th-minute goal to come back and beat Algeria 2-1, an 88th-minute goal to beat Russia 1-0, and a 78th-minute goal to beat South Korea 1-0 with 10 men.
They're getting the results, but the attacking flair and creativity we saw in mid-2013 has been absent. Lukaku was subbed off in both games he started, Kompany has an injury and is questionable for the U.S. game, and Hazard has drifted in and out of games.
On the one hand, winning without playing your best is typically the mark of a good team.
On the other hand, where is the young, exciting, Belgium team that we were all promised? Where's the team that we saw eviscerate the U.S. with three goals in 15 minutes in the second half of a friendly last summer? Where's the Belgium that was expected to announce itself at this tournament?
Based on any metric, Belgium is not Brazil, Germany, Argentina, or France. And that's what makes this such an opportunity for the U.S. — there's a sense that this a winnable game for the Americans.
But there's also the sense that Belgium has another gear in them, that their collection of talented individuals will eventually cohere in such a way that the U.S. cannot win this game, no matter how well they play.
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