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U.S. Plays Belgium In World Cup's Knockout Stage


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne. It's all on the line today for the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team at the World Cup in Brazil. The U.S. plays Belgium in the knockout stage of the tournament. Lose this one and America's World Cup is all over. But yesterday, some good news - a goal-scoring teammate the U.S. team has been missing nearly the entire term, maybe coming back. From Salvador, Brazil, NPR's Tom Goldman has the story.


TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: The U.S. Men's team opened a training session yesterday in Salvador - playing games and sounding more like a group of summer campers than pro-athletes facing a do-or-die situation. The confidence was palpable and the result of two pretty heady weeks, getting out of the so-called Group of Death in the opening round, getting rave reviews back in the US and huge support from the traveling band of American fans in Brazil.


JURGEN KLINSMANN: Guys, we keep it on the very light side this morning.

GOLDMAN: Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann broke the huddle, admonishing his team to keep it on the very light side. He wants to conserve energy for what's expected to be a tight, taut match against Belgium.

KLINSMANN: We have to be very alert - you know, alive, you know, from the first second on and courageous. Courageous - go forward and attack them and create chances and get this guy some balls in the box, you know - hopefully, a lot of them because if you give him two, then he makes one.

GOLDMAN: This guy is U.S. forward Clint Dempsey. He's been a lonely striker, ever since forward Jozy Altidore left the first game against Ghana with a hamstring strain. Klinsmann compensated in the following games by adding to the midfield rather than putting another person up front with Dempsey. As a result, the U.S. assumed a more defensive posture in its games. Klinsmann's call to attack yesterday perhaps signaled a change in strategy against Belgium. A change made easier because Altidore, according to the U.S. Soccer Federation, finally is ready and available.

KLINSMANN: Just having him with us is huge. And how many minutes? We'll see that during the game.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

GOLDMAN: Whatever offense the U.S. can muster is about to face a wall of a goalkeeper. Belgium's Thibaut Courtois is considered one of the best in the world. He's part of a richly talented and young lineup. But at the other end of the field, the Belgians also will have their hands full - well, actually, every body part, except their hands - with Tim Howard. The veteran American has largely sparkled in gold to the great relief of Clint Dempsey.

CLINT DEMPSEY: His leadership, in terms of keeping the backline organized in front of him and also little things - what to look for to help prevent goals. So having a player like him is huge for us.

GOLDMAN: The U.S. games to date have gone off without any real officiating hiccups. But yesterday, in the otherwise docile U.S. press conference, Coach Klinsmann acknowledged he's uncomfortable with the U.S.-Belgium referee, who's from Algeria.

KLINSMANN: Is it a good feeling? No because he's able to speak French with their players on the field, not with us. And it's the country that we beat in the last second in the last World Cup.

GOLDMAN: Klinsmann says the ref has done two games in the World Cup and, quote, "he did them very well," end quote. But Klinsmann seemed generally miffed and said sometimes he doesn't understand FIFA, soccer's governing body, which assigns game officials. The coach says he will give the absolute benefit of the doubt and hopes that everything goes well. And who knows? Maybe having your country's head coach woof about the ref a full day before the match may be the best indication yet that American soccer has arrived on the global stage. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Salvador, Brazil. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.
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