I've frequently thought that any team in the same league or tournament can stay with another team for about 75-80 minutes. Between the pressure, the advance talk, the weather, injuries, who's fit, who's in form and the like, underdogs can hang with the favorites for a long time. But what the Round of 16 has demonstrated thus far in the World Cup has been that it's what happens after that that distinguishes who advances from who goes home. And in all instances, it's been the favorite that has advanced.
The U.S. should take note of this fact as it enters its game against favored Belgium, which won its group, tomorrow. The U.S. almost tasted disaster in its game against Portugal by failing to play intensely for the entire game -- the Americans outplayed Portugal for almost the whole game, only to suffer a defensive lapse within thirty seconds of the game's end that caused a game in which they had all but earned a victory and the precious three points that came with it into a tie and some serious doubt about whether they would advance at all. If that game didn't bring home the message to the U.S. that they have to sprint through the finish line, many games in the Round of 16 have.
The Dutch were on the verge of going home going into the late minutes in their game against Mexico. Perhaps the favored Orange had swelled heads. After all, they were overlooked in the Group Stage, only to emerge as the most likely of any Round of 16 grouping of four to advance (thanks to Spain's surprise exit). The Mexicans had a good tournament, but in the 88th minute the Dutch scored to tie it, and then they scored the game-winner in stoppage time (okay that was controversial, but it was what it was). I am sure that many members of the Mexican team wish they had the last two minutes or so of that game to play again.
Fast forward to today, when the heavily favored Germans continued to fail convert excellent changes against Algeria. The game went to Extra Time, and finally the Germans scored and then scored again. Valiant play by the Algerian goalkeeper kept the game close, but the Algerians failed to create many chances. Perhaps it was a case of the better team wearing the underdog down, but the Algerians failed to get it done. That's probably not as good an example as is the Netherlands-Mexico contest, but outside the French, the favorites all had tough games.
I remain convinced that the U.S. should attack the Belgians early and hard. True, the Belgians are playing a confounding (for fans) conservative style that has proved to be the best defense against striker Romelu Lukaku that the promising young striker has seen all year -- his own team's strategy has taken him out of the game. It would be easy for the U.S. to play into this strategy, play possum, and only take what the Belgians give, but that would be a mistake. That would mean that the U.S. would agree to keep the ball stuck at midfield and not attack. If that's the case, count on the Red Devils to awaken in the middle of the second half, push the throttle on their idling engine, and push ahead hard and score a decisive goal. The Belgians have won all three of their games in this fashion
The problem with a "hang with the Belgians" strategy is that the favorites typically have more at the end to win -- better penalty takers, players who are more creative, players with more stamina, and they figure out a way to win. Instead, the U.S. should consider hitting a relatively tentative and uncoordinated Belgian team with an aggressive strategy early. True, they might risk a few long balls over the top of defensive lines that are moved up, but they also might create more chances and bloody the nose of the Red Devils. Score early, and the U.S. will throw a wrench into the Belgian engine from which Belgium might not be able to recover.
All that said, the U.S. needs to ensure that it plays in top form in the last ten minutes of the game, especially if they are ahead or the game is tied. Take the extra run, challenge the extra pass, make the extra play -- each of those things could make a crucial difference in the game's outcome. That's what seemingly is distinguishing the teams that are advancing -- they have more left in the tank at the end, and they can close out the game and win.