By DAN KARELL
CLEVELAND– It may not be highest on the list in terms of importance, but the first match of the U.S. Men’s National Team’s upcoming run of five matches in two weeks will certainly be one of the toughest.
The USMNT begin their busy run of matches on Wednesday night against Belgium, one of most talented young teams in the world. Boasting the likes of Christian Benteke, Marouane Fellaini, and Vincent Kompany, Belgium’s top players are all likely to see time in the match at FirstEnergy Stadium, giving the U.S. a strong test ahead of three World Cup qualifiers in June.
“It’s a heck of a challenge for a first game, but big games are awesome to play and you learn lessons whether you play really well or really badly,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “I don’t think we’ll play really badly. I think they’re going to hit us on the break. I get the feeling it will be one of those games where they’ve all come over from Europe, and they’ll lay in wait, and then hit us on the counter.”
Belgium is currently unbeaten in their UEFA World Cup qualifying group, winning their last four in a row and featuring some of the best attacking players in the region. Head coach Marc Wilmots brought his side to the states to play the U.S. and get some team bonding time ahead of a crucial qualifying match against Serbia on June 8.
“I know my group and I have no time for experiments,” Wilmots told Het Nieuwsblad. “For now I do not think of throwing away my system. The important thing now is to get match fitness and get in shape for Serbia.”
Howard and a number of his European-based teammates are joining the U.S. squad after another long and grueling season with their clubs, and a number of the players took some time off to help recharge the batteries for the upcoming stretch of games.
At the same time, seven players currently in camp are coming from their Major League Soccer clubs, where they are right in the middle of their season, forcing the coaching staff to focus on making sure everyone is in the correct mindset.
“Guys are coming off a long season and the couple of days, the little break, helped everybody” defender Geoff Cameron said. “We’re mentally trying to get sharp. We worked on our shape, some possession, and get that fiery attitude to come out and take care of business.”
U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has already named his starting central midfielders, giving Sacha Kljestan a rare start alongside Jermaine Jones in place of Michael Bradley, who will be meeting up with the squad in Washington D.C. for their match on Sunday against Germany. Kljestan is coming off a second-consecutive championship season at club side Anderlecht, where he’ll go up against many of his teammates and league adversaries.
One of the leading story lines in the match is the potential 100th cap for DaMarcus Beasley, who produced two stellar performances at left back in the last two qualifying matches between Costa Rica and Mexico. The 30-year-old began his national team career in 2001, and still is playing a role with the team in 2013.
“We are happy for Beasley, because he deserves to get his 100th cap, he deserves to be part of this group here,” Klinsmann said. “His character and commitment to the national team is outstanding. What we always liked about him is that he challenges himself. He always wants to do another thing, he doesn’t want to stand still.”
The focus for the team remains on the three World Cup qualifying matches against Jamaica, Panama, and Honduras in June, but the team knows that this match against Belgium and Sunday’s against Germany will help the team make the most of the qualifiers.
“Both those games are going to be tough and that puts us in a good position going into qualifying because we’re going to be ready for whatever,” forward Clint Dempsey said.