The U.S. was excellent, if a little staid, during its three group stage games at the 2022 World Cup. The Americans controlled their matches with carefully applied pressure and just enough offensive burst to make it to the knockout rounds and impress many global observers. On Saturday, the bill for those performances came due. Throughout qualifying, the U.S. had at least one bad game for every three it played. At the World Cup, they made it one in four and paid the price for it, falling 3–1 to the favored Netherlands.
Why was this the game that thwarted the Americans? For one, the U.S. ran into a legendary coach who respected them enough to adjust his plan. Louis van Gaal has coached Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and the Netherlands national team three separate times. He won a Champions League title in 1995 (the same season U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter began his professional career as a player) and took his nation to the World Cup semifinals in 2014. Van Gaal realized the USMNT had success turning games into a demolition derby in midfield and so he removed that option from the table, sitting his team back where it could draw the Americans forward and pick its moment to pass through them. Meanwhile, the Dutch forwards and attacking midfielders worked diligently to block the American center backs’ first-choice passes, the ones out to the fullbacks or to Tyler Adams in midfield, forcing the U.S. deeper than it would have liked to go as it tried to move the ball forward and keeping it out of dangerous areas. The best the Americans could do through much of the game was hit speculative crosses, which the trio of Dutch center backs cleared with ease.
More importantly, though, the USMNT simply looked drained by the effort it expended to get through its group. While it grinded out its win against Iran, the Netherlands got to coast to victory against Qatar, and the difference showed. Every team wants to make it hard to play through midfield, but this time Adams, Yunus Musah, and Weston McKennie couldn’t summon the energy to brute-force their way through the Dutch marking by outsprinting them or winning the most important duels. Much of the game was played at a slow pace that favored the Netherlands, and the U.S. didn’t have the horsepower to push it and put the Dutch under stress. They finally managed it toward the end of the second half, but that was the only moment when it looked like a comeback from a 2-0 first-half deficit might be possible.
Their fatigue cost the U.S. on defense, too. Adams, who had the energy throughout the group stages to be everywhere on the field, had to pick and choose his spots here. He chose poorly on Memphis Depay’s opening goal, hoping Musah would slide over and cover after he had gone forward to press (just as the Dutch were hoping for). Neither was within five yards of Depay when he slotted the opening goal home.
That was the theme for the Netherlands. Their players had the patience to find the open man in the moments after the tired American defenders had lost track of him. Left wingback Daley Blind doubled the Dutch lead just before halftime by ghosting past a flat-footed Sergiño Dest to fire a cutback home. Right wingback Denzel Dumfries, who assisted the first two Dutch goals, snuck behind the entire U.S. defense like Solid Snake in a cardboard box to score the third.
In both cases, the fatigue the U.S. was feeling seemed mental as well as physical. So focused were the defenders on the players in front of them in the box, they simply forgot to turn their heads and account for a late-arriving run from the widest Dutch players. Elementary stuff, well-executed by the Dutch.
Despite all this, the U.S. created more chances than it had at any point in the group stage. As in the group stages, however, it failed to finish them. (Its goal, a looping, whirling reverse chip off the back foot of striker Haji Wright that looked like it would take a troop of YouTube trick shot artists about nine hours to replicate, does not count as one of these.) Pulisic was found by Adams behind the Dutch lines barely two minutes into the game, but looked so surprised at how easy it was that he hit his shot into the shin of goalkeeper Andries Noppert. Tim Weah stung Noppert’s hands just before halftime. Tim Ream couldn’t get any power onto a bouncing second ball after a U.S. corner kick just after halftime. Weston McKennie found time to shoot just a few yards back from where Depay slotted his home but skied it over the bar. Any of those go in, particularly in the first half, and van Gaal probably has to tweak his cautious gameplan to invite a little more risk. The Netherlands, by contrast, finished all its best chances, save for a spectacular double save made by U.S. goalkeeper Matt Turner.
The end result was a good but not stellar tournament from the Americans. It exited at the same place it left the last two World Cups it qualified for, but with a young team rebounding after the failure in 2018, that’s still constructive. Berhalter wasn’t perfect with his substitutions—the much-discussed Gio Reyna looked good when he came on today but wasn’t a game-changer—but he adapted well to three opponents and got his team opportunities against the fourth. Adams deserves a Congressional appropriation to give him a long, relaxing vacation that he’s not going to get because this tournament is unconscionably being held in the middle of the club season. Pulisic rose to the occasion when no one else could create any danger. The 20-year-old Musah is an American soccer anomaly who seems like he’ll land somewhere between “very, very good” and “one of the best players in the world,” depending on how many tools he adds to his repertoire over the next few years.
But when these players waned, the U.S. struggled. The team was hamstrung by its lack of depth throughout the tournament, often fading as games went on. Forwards Jesús Ferreira and Wright, fortunate goal aside, added little to its attack, and the lack of trusted midfield subs burned out the legs of Adams and Musah, especially since somebody had to replace a still-recovering McKennie early in each second half. Robinson, in pain and exhausted, stayed on the field against the Netherlands for so long mostly because there were no other options. The talent the U.S. has developed has lifted the top end of the roster, but finding reliable contributors who fit as replacements without disrupting the entire scheme has been harder.
That’s perhaps the biggest challenge for the next four years. This young generation of players will, barring catastrophe, be entering their primes when the World Cup comes to North America in 2026. Finding new talent to back them up, and push them for their starting places, will determine how far this team can go the next time around.