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Tim Howard

Friends and Foes: U.S. MNT Players Face Club Teammates in Cleveland

As the U.S. Men’s National Team look out on its match with Belgium tonight from FirstEnergry Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio, they will be facing a foe as familiar as it is dangerous. The Belgians enter the match ranked 15th in the world in the latest FIFA rankings and provide an opponent ripe with connections to the U.S. MNT.

Several Belgian stars share the pitch with members of the MNT in one of the most topflight league’s in the world, the English Premier League. Where U.S. goalkeeper Brad Guzan was an integral part of Aston Villa avoiding relegation by saving goals, his Belgian teammate, Christian Benteke did his part to keep Villa up by scoring them. Nineteen to be exact, good enough for fourth in England’s topflight.

Two Belgian players were also selected to the Premier League team of the year with defender Jan Vertonghen and Europa league champion forward Eden Hazard being named to the Best XI. Vertonghen and fellow Belgian Moussa Dembele play with U.S. MNT veteran Clint Dempsey at Tottenham and helped Spurs to a fifth place finish in their latest Premier League campaign.

“It’s a team that has a lot of great players. Not only Moussa Dembele and Jan Vertonghen who play [with me] for Tottenham but they have a lot of up and coming players,” Dempsey said. “Benteke was really great this season for Aston Villa and they have Hazard who plays for Chelsea. They just have a lot of quality and a lot of depth. They’re a young team that’s first in their group for World Cup Qualifying so it’s going to be a tough game.”

Another MNT veteran who knows how good the Belgians are from firsthand experience is Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard, who along with his Belgian teammates helped the Toffees to a sixth-place finish in the Premier League this season.

“They’re two really good players on a team that has some top level European players. Most of their players play at the top level around Europe,” Howard said. “We have Marouane Felliani and Kevin Mirallas who are two very talented and classy players.”

“Felliani’s been there for a while at Everton and he’s powerful, he’s got really delicate feet, he’s a good midfielder who can also play up top and he’s more of a physical presence.”

Felliani was huge for Everton as they chased a spot in next year’s European competitions all season as the midfielder finished first on the team in goals with 11, and second on the team in assists with five. Mirallas finished fifth on the team with six goals and also added three assists on the season.

“Kevin is the showstopper, he can produce magic when you get the ball to his feet in wide areas,” Howard said. “He likes to dribble and turn people, he gets in good crosses, he’s a classy finisher in front of goal, he picks his spots and he takes his chances when he gets them. He’s been very dangerous and as the year went on at Everton he grew into that role. It took him a little while to pick up the pace of the premiership, which I think most players find difficult but he settled in really well and produced magic for us.”

With skill, style, class and magic combined, the U.S. will indeed face a challenging test tonight in Cleveland. They are not only going up against a very talented opponent: they’ll be going up against very talented teammates.