SALVADOR, Brazil – Two sensibilities permeate the psyche of teams in the knockout stage of the World Cup.
The first begs caution, conservatively defending for 90 minutes and judiciously going forward on attack – more out of necessity than a desire to score.
The second is a pervasive fearlessness, which is found within the teams who have reached this point in the tournament countless times before. Those teams don't worry about losing, because those teams don't lose.
What kind of team does the U.S. want to be?
The United States has a decision to make in the 24 hours before it kicks off against Belgium. Is this a conservative, defensive U.S. team or one willing to play with the carefree swagger of a perennial favorite?
Common sense would preach defense. Don't concede and lean on the stray set piece opportunity to create scoring chances. On paper, the U.S. doesn't have the talent to match its Belgium opponent. The numbers say bunker down.
That mentality runs counter to the construct of the U.S. roster. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann has picked a team filled with players who are at their best when attacking. Klinsmann has said as much in the days leading up to this game.
Yet, this team hasn't been faithful to its identity for much of the tournament. It defended for the duration against Ghana and Germany, and for the final 20 minutes against Portugal. Perhaps it was a conscious decision to play in that conservative shell. Perhaps it was prudent in a scenario which rewarded 2-2 draws and 1-0 losses.
The U.S. is going to have to throw a punch or two.
There won't be a draw in the knockout rounds. The U.S. won't reach the quarterfinals with a 1-0 loss and a little help from Cristiano Ronaldo. Why cater to that mentality, then? Why not attack?
If the U.S. is going to beat Belgium, it's going to have to throw a punch or two.
Belgium has played 270 minutes in this World Cup. It has led its opponents for 28 of those 270 minutes. Belgium is a team content with allowing its opponent to do essentially whatever they want – except score. The Belgians have managed their opponents flawlessly in the World Cup, but they have never dominated any of them. Cast in that light, the challenge for the U.S. is clear.
Playing an attack-minded style isn't just more entertaining; it makes tactical sense for the U.S. Belgium has proven over the first three games of the tournament that it will find a way to score at some point, and when that goal does come, it's often too late to do anything about it.
Belgium dares its opponents to beat them in the first 70 minutes of the match. Klinsmann must trust that 70 minutes of his team on offense will prevail. That means allowing Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley to push higher up the field, sending Fabian Johnson forward from right back, and trusting Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones to cover those three when possession gets lost.
It's not dissimilar from the way the U.S. match against Portugal played out. The U.S. overwhelmed an opponent who was content to absorb pressure in that situation as well. The difference between Portugal and Belgium is that Belgium doesn't have the best player in the world on its team.
In knockout stages past, the U.S. didn't have the quality in its lineup to do anything but defend for 90 minutes. Even when the Americans advanced to the quarterfinals with a win over Mexico in 2002, that team was in a defensive shell for the duration.
That's the greatest difference between 2014's team and every American World Cup team that came before. This team has the ability to make a semifinal with the right mentality.
Klinsmann must trust his team's ability to play at this level, and the team must have the confidence to know it can.