USA SLIPS IN RAIN TO BELGIUM
A second-half goal from Belgium defender Nicolas Lombaerts was enough to send the USA to their second loss in three tries under new head coach Jürgen Klinsmann, in a rain-soaked encounter which saw both teams struggle to establish any consistent rhythm to their game.
Both teams were coming off of disappointing results earlier in the international break, although the hosts were likely the ones with more for which to atone.
While Klinsmann's team had looked the better of the two in their loss to Costa Rica on Saturday, Belgium's shocking draw on Friday at relative minnows Azerbaijan had put their Euro 2012 qualification hopes in serious doubt, placing the team on fragile footing with the home fans.
Several departures and arrivals within the roster as they made the trip from Los Angeles to Belgium after the weekend prompted Klinsmann to put forth a lineup not entirely without its surprises, most notably adding FC Nürnberg starting right back Timothy Chandler to the long line of players brought in to fill the chronic gap on the left side of defense which has plagued the team since well before the German coach's tenure.
Clint Dempsey also earned his first minutes under the new coach, paired in the center with Jose Francisco Torres, and bookended by the speedy pair of Robbie Rogers and Break Shea on the flanks.
Dempsey experienced a flash of deja vu to a familiar scene from the most recent World Cup five minutes into the game when his low driving free kick attempt from 30 yards out towards the lower left corner was scooped up but subsequently spilled by Belgian keeper Simon Mignolet in the midst of the rainy conditions.
However unlike English keeper Rob Green which gave the Americans a welcome gift in South Africa on a similar error, the Sunderland keeper was spared from humiliation in this instance as the ball bounced to the left of goal, just a step too far ahead for the onrushing striker Jozy Altidore to make any useful contact.
The nonstop sheets of rain blanketing the field were a clear hindrance to both teams, with errant passes and unreliable ball movement making for a sloppy encounter in the opening minutes.
Torres was given nearly all set piece duties throughout his time on the field, which almost paid dividends as his 18th-minute free kick from the right flank just outside the area swung towards the far post and was just a couple yards high.
"I think it was an interesting game for both [teams]," head coach Jürgen Klinsmann stated following the contest. "You saw in the first 25 minutes we had good passing movement and we were really involved in the game. The Belgian [team], with the individual class that they have, also created some good chances before halftime."
True to the coach's words, the hosts were not without their own moments of bite, and were able to move the scales increasingly in their favor as the half wore on.
In the 26th minute, a pass from Marouane Fellaini from near the penalty spot back to the edge of the area took a slight deflection off of Maurice Edu's foot and landed straight in the path of defensive midfielder Timmy Simons, whose one-touch rocket towards the lower left corner forced Tim Howard into a spectacular diving block.
Then barely two minutes later, Dries Mertens cut in from the left and barely fired wide with a right-footed drive directed to the near upper corner.
Howard's reflexes once again saved the US in the 34th minute, as Mertens stormed up the right wing and found Fellaini in the middle of the area for a one-touch shot that was aimed straight at the American keeper.
The remainder of the half hardly saw any improvement from the Americans in the attacking half, and their frustrations were perhaps best summed up just before the break when Edu received the ball from Robbie Rogers as he was on the move towards the left side with space to operate, but entirely whiffed on his attempted shot from outside the box and was ultimately whistled for a foul as he struggled to recover the ball.
Klinsmann quickly adjusted his tack after the break, sacrificing the wing play of Rogers on the right in favor of the additional defensive midfielder Kyle Beckerman functioning alongside Edu in a "double-six" formation to put a halt to Belgium's consistent domination in the middle.
"We had problems with Witsel and Fellaini passing too many balls through the middle because Maurice Edu was our only number-six there in that position and the other players were too far away from him," he admitted of the necessity to alter the approach. "That created some issues for us."
"Bringing Kyle Beckerman in helped Maurice out in that way and we were far more solid in the second half. They created far less chances in the second half and step by step we pushed it forward."
Similarly, Altidore was limited to just 45 minutes of play, with New York Red Bull youngster Juan Agudelo entering the game up front in a like-for-like swap.
"The decision to substitute out Altidore was very simple because Jozy is still in his buildup from just beginning with his club team and he doesn't have a full game in his legs yet," Klinsmann told of his decision to end Altidore's night after just one half of play.
"Unfortunately t also took an option away from me because I couldn't play both Jozy and Juan up front together. I might have tried a 4-4-2 in that moment with Clint Dempsey playing behind the two strikers and that is certainly an option we'd like to try out, but it wasn't the case this time."
While the midfield fortification did indeed limit the early attacks of both Fellaini and Axel Witsel in the middle for Belgium and put the game on more even footing, it had no effect to stop what was a largely unexpected opening goal by the hosts.
Edu and Fellaini challenged for a throw-in at the right edge of the penalty area in the 55th minute, and the resulting bounced took the ball in front of Dempsey to Nicolas Lombaerts at the top edge. The defender needed just one touch to strike his low blast towards the right post, where it flew directly under the reach of the otherwise-spectacular Howard and into the back netting for the 1-0 lead.
The goal temporarily siphoned most of the energy from the game, as the Americans' gradual turnaround to start the half had been undone with one kick of the ball and conversely the Belgians had suddenly gained the upper hand.
Nevertheless, a largely slow second half did have several brief interludes of excitement in the final 20 minutes of regulation.
"In the second half, the reaction from our end was very positive," Klinsmann evaluated of the team's ability to eventually move forward after going down. "We conceded a goal which came out of a set piece. [After that] we kept our pace, we kept moving forward and we kept creating chances."
In the 70th minute, Dempsey dribbled dribbled into the area from the left, false-stepped one defender to gain space and hit a low, right-footed shot to the near corner which was directly into Mignolet's hands.
Then nine minutes later, Dempsey slipped the ball left to young FC Dallas standout Shea, who first cut inside before getting an attempted shot off which was blocked to safety by Toby Alderweireld.
With eight minutes left to go, Steve Cherundolo found space to hit a cross from near the endline in the direction of both Dempsey and Shea in the area, however the ball was too high for either of the attackers to make contact with.
Two minutes later, the Americans were teased for a few brief moments with an apparent equalizer; Cherundolo struck a long free kick from the right side into the area into a crowd of onrushing attackers.
Clarence Goodson lept above the surrounding defenders to head it laterally to his right, where it bounced up and was struck by the forehead of Edu to the left of goal. The team's celebrations were, however, cut short as the flag of the assistant referee was raised, negating the goal for perceived offside.
Shea created one last chance for his team in the final minute of regulation, breaking forward on the left and sliding the ball to Dempsey, whose first-time shot took a deflection off of a defender and popped up towards the left post, giving Mignolet ample time to pull it down.
In the dying seconds of the two allocated minutes of added time, the game came to an appropriate close an apparently worn and disinterested American midfield made a series of lateral passes before sloppily kicking it out of bounds, giving Scottish referee William Collum the pause he needed to finally end the rainy evening.
"We take a lot away from this game," the German coach ruminated about the overall performance. "Obviously you don't like losing but it is what it is. Overall there were some very, very good points and I think it was an interesting game for everybody."
Being on the field for the full game, Dempsey felt the team did do the work to earn a draw, however doesn't let the overall result draw the focus away from the bigger picture.
"We played really well in the first 20 minutes, responded well after the goal and we were always looking like we were going to get the next one to equalize," he assesses. "We have to keep moving forward, keep working on things."
Tim Howard also takes the result in stride, knowing that all the factors involved, both on and off the field, were inevitably going to force the team into a hard fight.
"It was a tough game," Howard admits. "We knew coming in how talented Belgium was, the conditions weren't great, and they were coming off a draw in qualifying that they probably thought they should have won. We knew they were going to come out at home and need a performance, and they did that."
"It was a difficult game of course, but it wasn't anything we didn't expect," he continues. "It was OK, in spots, and in a big game in Europe you're going to have your back against the wall. For the most part I thought we were resilient."
With the current international break having now drawn to its close, the players will return to their regularly-scheduled club duties, with more than one month until the next international game for the US, a meeting with local CONCACAF rivals Honduras on October 8 in Miami.