Argentinian television is calling it La Copa de Batacazos: a World Cup of bumps, surprises and the unforeseeable. They’ve come thick and fast on this tiny Gulf peninsula over the past two weeks, with a record seven teams ranked in the top 20 of Fifa’s world rankings, including Germany, crashing out at the group stage.
The United States entered Saturday night’s knockout match with the Netherlands confident they could deliver the latest plot twist in a competition where outsiders have consistently punched above their weight. Instead, their dream is over in disappointingly predictable fashion thanks to shortcomings that have become all too familiar.
It was the same old story for the Americans, who finished with more shots (17 to 11), more shots on target (eight to six), more passes (564 to 412) and a greater share of possession (58% to 42%), but lacked the ruthlessness and professional edge of the Dutch, who improved to 19 matches unbeaten since Louis van Gaal took over after last year’s European Championship.
The Americans’ profligacy from promising attacking positions, their imprecision in building chances from possession and their consistently poor set-pieces all came under a harsh glare on the world stage after persisting through an often-rocky World Cup qualifying campaign. For three matches in Qatar they were able to make up the difference with closely knit team play fueled by boundless energy in midfield. But when the reserves ran dry on Saturday night, their defects finally caught up with them.
The controlled and efficient presence of the Tyler Adams-Weston McKennie-Yunus Musah midfield that embodied the Americans’ biggest strength and source of optimism against the favored Dutch was badly misfiring. Any concerns that they had left it all on the field during the group stage were confirmed in the first quarter-hour. Adams was nowhere near Memphis Depay on the first goal, McKennie was replaced before the hour mark and Musah looked spent from the word go, making poor giveaways that led to a number of Dutch chances. Physical and mental fatigue were working hand in hand.
That troubling collaboration was in full view early on, when the Dutch midfielder Frenkie de Jong dropped in between two center-backs to collect the ball before starting a sequence of 20 uninterrupted passes over 114 seconds, leaving the American press in ribbons before Depay finished crisply from a Denzel Dumfries cross to punctuate a pass-and-move masterclass.
Suddenly the only team to not concede from open play in the group stage was trailing for the first time in their tournament. At times they looked tactically overwhelmed against a Dutch side pressing insanely high, daring the Americans to make them pay.
“When you look at the difference between the two teams, to me, there was some offensive finishing quality that Holland had that we’re lacking a little bit,” Berhalter said. “We have a very young group. We have players that are beginning their careers and they’re going to catch up to that. They’re going to get the same thing.”
The Americans did well to get their feet under them. But when Daley Blind found acres of space at the post after eluding Sergiño Dest, the Ajax midfielder scored to effectively close the show against opponents who have wanted mightily for goals against world-class sides. The US didn’t make a whole lot of mistakes on Saturday. But when they did, the Netherlands punished them.
“The first half was a great indication of the game being about moments. We were on top for a lot of the first half and two moments come and all of a sudden we’re 2-0 down. The message was soccer can be cruel sometimes,” said Berhalter. “It’s just moments that the players were [switched] off a little bit here and there and it ends up in the back of the net. When you play at this level, against high quality opponents, that’s what happens. It’s unfortunate that it happens in the knockout game, but it did and we’ve got to learn from it.”
Now for the good news. At a time when more young US players than ever before are spending their teenage years in Europe, more than half of Berhalter’s 26-man squad compete in the world’s top five leagues, including Pulisic (Chelsea), Dest (Milan), McKennie (Juventus) and Adams (Leeds United), who departs as one of the revelations of the tournament. Nineteen of them made their World Cup debuts over the past fortnight – a record for a US team by some distance – and all of them got a taste of the knockout cauldron.
They started three of the youngest starting XIs in this tournament and four of the youngest five. Eight of Berhalter’s choices for the Netherlands match were 25 or younger.
For once the breathless chatter over an American golden generation doesn’t feel like promotional bluster. And the next time they play a World Cup match will be on home soil.
Even though Berhalter resisted the notion that his youth movement was designed at least in part with 2026 in mind, the fact remains that today’s core players will be in their presumptive primes when the US will be co-hosts.
“I think this group is closer,” Berhalter said. “Can we win against top teams? Can we perform well against top teams well enough to win? Today is a strange type of outcome in a game like this when we perform really well, especially in the first half. But to be fielding the youngest lineups in the World Cup four times in a row and still be able to play the way we are, the American public should be optimistic.”