Belgium vs. United States
Arena Fonte Nova, Salvador
What to know about Belgium
TOUGH DEFENSE: Belgium didn't concede a single goal in open play during the group stage. Talk about a hermetic seal. It has Thibaut Courtois, at 22, already one of the top goalkeepers around. He anchored Atletico Madrid to the Spanish league title and also the Champions League final. Playing ahead of him is Vincent Kompany, who led Manchester City to two of the last three Premier League titles. And amazingly at 36, Daniel Van Buyten is still one of the standout defenders at the World Cup.
"KAMPFSCHWEIN" COACH: If you are looking for fighting spirit, coach Marc Wilmots fits the bill. Such was the toughness of his attitude and the challenges he made as a player with Schalke in the Bundesliga, the working class fan base immediately took a liking to him and called him Kampfschwein — which translates as fighting boar. Now aged 45, that determination survives. As a coach, he goes looking for victories at the World Cup whether they involve beautiful football or not. His team's three one-goal victories have so far proven it to be the right strategy.
EDEN HAZARD: The playmaker has huge expectations to live up to. At 23, he is already among a handful of European players with global appeal. He is now the creative genius at Chelsea and is seeking to emulate that for Belgium at the World Cup. So far, the results have been mixed. He has been decisive in both matches he played in, providing the winning assist late in the game each time, in a 1-0 win over Russia and a 2-1 victory against Algeria. But he has yet to take the mantle of leadership in the team and this is what Wilmots will be looking for against the United States.
SPOILT FOR STRIKERS?: Don't be fooled by the measly four goals from three games, Belgium does have its share of good strikers. Christian Benteke was supposed to be the first choice for Wilmots, but the Aston Villa striker ruptured his Achilles tendon in April. No worries. There's also Romelu Lukaku, the Everton forward. Despite a sterling preparation campaign and key goals in qualifying, he has been a bitter disappointment so far in Brazil. Wilmots went looking for an alternative, and found one. Divock Origi, at 19, has been crucial.
He scored the winner against Russia and provided the shot which allowed Jan Vertonghen to tap in the winner against South Korea. Now, Origi is a fan favorite to start against the United States.
MATCH REVISITED: Since Wilmots and his U.S. counterpart Jurgen Klinsmann get on well, the team had planned to play a training match in Sao Paulo just days before the start of their campaigns. The threat of strikes and traffic jams forced Wilmots to reconsider and it was called off at the last moment. Now they meet will meet in Salvador on Tuesday. But this will be anything but a gentle practice match.
SAO PAULO — The last time the U.S. played in a World Cup in Brazil, just one American reporter was on hand, using vacation time and paying his own way.
Sixty-four years later, about 100 credentialed U.S. media members are covering the tournament — and that doesn't even include staffers from the networks broadcasting the games.
Back home, millions of people are watching on giant screens or office computers, at bars and public gatherings. In their protected Brazilian bubble, U.S. players find out about it via email, text, tweet, Facebook, cable television and all sorts of other inventions that didn't exist in 1950.
"All the bars and the pubs and restaurants are packed, and it's all over social media and people are taking off work," goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "That says a lot. They do that for the Super Bowl. So the fact that they're doing it for the World Cup is special."
The Americans traveled Sunday to Salvador for Tuesday's second-round game against Belgium. Sunday also marked the anniversary of the famous 1-0 victory over England at Belo Horizonte, still considered by many the biggest upset in World Cup history.
Dent McSkimming of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was the only American reporter there in 1950. Now every game is televised live back home, drawing audiences that would make every U.S. league other than the NFL jealous.
Stars in other sports are taking notice. San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum pulled on a U.S. road jersey after throwing a no-hitter last week.
This kind of attention and hype would have been unimaginable not just in 1990, when the U.S. returned to the World Cup after a 40-year absence, but even as recently as 2010.
Players have cited the large crowds at home and the thousands of U.S. fans in Brazilian stadiums as forces that motivated them during difficult moments.
"It is the reason we exist," said Korey Donahoo, president of the American Outlaws supporters group, "to inspire a difference in the team and to help spur the players on to greater things."
The three U.S. group stage games averaged more than 18 million viewers between English-language ESPN and Spanish-language Univision. The 2-2 Sunday evening draw with Portugal was the most-watched soccer game in American history with 24.7 million TV viewers.
The finale against Germany started at noon EDT when much of the country was at work — or at least supposed to be. A record audience of 1.05 million streamed that match on WatchESPN.
"Four years ago it was impressive, and the fact that it seems even bigger now is a testament to our country," Howard said. "I don't know if we can get that type of electricity every weekend. I don't think that's where we're at as a country in terms of the soccer fanaticism."
By comparison, Boston's six-game World Series win over St. Louis last October averaged 14.9 million viewers on Fox, San Antonio's five-game victory over Miami in this month's NBA Finals averaged 15.5 million on ABC, and Los Angeles' five-game win over the New York Rangers in the NHL's Stanley Cup finals averaged 5 million on NBC and NBCSN.
But "American football" is still the king in the U.S. The opening weekend of the NFL playoffs this past season averaged 34.7 million viewers for four games.
"This is a very special time for us back home in America and with the growth of soccer," defender Omar Gonzalez said. "With us getting out of the group, it definitely helps a lot. The viewership on different channels has been great, and we want to keep it going."
A win over Belgium would advance the U.S. to a quarterfinal against Argentina or Switzerland on Saturday at noon EDT, another potential record-setter.
"We're on a positive trendline in this sport. I don't think there's any denying that," U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said. "What this does is, it jumps up to a much higher trendline."