Back in 2012 Chelsea visited Seattle Sounders FC in a midseason friendly they would win 4-2 and then go on the rest of their USA tour. That included a date against the MLS All Stars (which MLS won). That Chelsea side featured the first ever appearance by Belgian Eden Hazard and countryman Romelu Lukaku took the pitch for the Blues rather than one of his many loan teams. Seattle's memories of those two is that they are well beyond MLS quality. But so is are the Americans taking the pitch. That was a Sounders team pre-Dempsey, pre-Yedlin.
That was two years ago and now Hazard is one of the top players in the world. Lukaku has EPL time and the United States is an underdog to the Golden Era of Belgium. They are both better, but do have vulnerabilities.
I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on Belgium. Instead let's have a chat with Dávid from We Ain't Got No History and check in on what's changed for those youngsters and what the USA can do against them.
SaH: Lukaku doesn't play for Chelsea currently, but he handled Sounders FC's Jeff Parke during that friendly. What's improved in his play since his visit here? Does Chelsea keep him?
WAGNH: If you were to ask Lukaku that question, he'd tell you "everything." Just recently he declared himself, in no uncertain terms, a "complete striker," and that's something that really hasn't gone down well with much of the Chelsea faithful. While he's had success in terms of goal-scoring totals on loan at Everton and at West Brom, his game still lacks a fair amount of polish. His first touch can be horrendous, he is prone to drifting out of games, and he seems to often lack the raw effort that many fans like to see out there. He's surprisingly bad at headers for a big, strong man. But when he's on, and there's a freight train of power called Romelu Lukaku running straight at you, it can be pretty glorious.
As far as keeping him, it's hard to tell. One day it seems that we'll keep him, the next day he'll declare his desire to leave. And then change his mind again the next day. He went on loan last summer because he didn't think he'd get enough playing time with a distinctly third-rate strike force of Eto'o, Torres, and Ba to challenge him for minutes. If we get an actual striker like Diego Costa, Lukaku may just throw out the toys again and decide to leave for good. Basically, he's shown himself to be surprisingly immature for someone who's been a professional since 16. It's not helping that he's had a horrendous World Cup so far and has been upstaged by a virtual unknown in 19-year-old Divock Origi.
SaH: Hazard debuted with the Blues here in Seattle. He's now one of the top players in the EPL. Does he have weaknesses that the USA can exploit?
WAGNH: At his best, Hazard is unplayable. So far in the World Cup, he's only shown that for about 10-15 minutes combined in the three group stage games, during which time he's still managed to create two of the four Belgian goals.
Exploitable weaknesses are few. He's not always too diligent about tracking back, which could result in the US finding some joy down the Belgium left. Sometimes he gets overly concerned with beating his man rather than producing anything tangible. And while he's very good with both feet, he's much more likely to shoot with his right than with his left. The stereotypical Hazard goal is a cut-in from the left wing, beating one man, then another, then a shot fake, and then a goal. And while Hazard himself doesn't shoot nearly as often as he really should to get up there with the CRs and Messis and Suarezes of the world, showing him down the line is a way to try to minimize that threat. Though that creates the cutback low cross option which is how he set up Origi for the winner against Russia.
SaH: Are there non-Chelsea EPL Belgians that an American should worry about crushing our dreams?
WAGNH: Does Thibaut Courtois count? Officially, he's yet to kick a ball for Chelsea, though he's undefeated in three matches against his parent club in the colors of Atletico Madrid. Belgium have never lost with him between the posts (13-0-6). He's one of the best goalkeepers in the world and he's just 22.
Ex-Chelsea Kevin De Bruyne is often pulling the strings of Belgium's attacking moves, though he now plays in Germany. Manchester United's Marouane Fellaini can be a game-changer, especially when deployed as a second striker to bully the defenders. Manchester City's Vincent Kompany is the rock of the defense.
Stopping those that crushed Seattle will take a performance by Jones/Beckerman. It's less of an air-battle situation so the chances of a Cameron/Besler pairing is a bit higher. But the fluidity offered by the EPL powered attack will cause communication issues for Klinsmann's men. Their teamwork will be the essence, because on talent they are not a match.