Sports

The U.S. Knows Exactly What It Needs to Do to Beat the Netherlands

Weston McKennie with his hands folded, screaming excitedly
Weston McKennie reacts during the U.S. win over Iran. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images and Getty Images Plus.

The United States men’s national team is starting over. The board has been nearly cleared as the team enters the knockout rounds of the 2022 World Cup. The stunning precision of the Americans’ winning goal against Iran on Tuesday, the tension as they fought to hold that lead for the rest of the game, and even the pride fans might have felt as they consoled the defeated Iranians on the field just minutes after eliminating them, all of it counts for nought now. Make a note for their performance review; none of it can help them as they move on to the tournament’s next stage on Saturday against the Dutch team that won Group A.

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What lingers is the pain and the fatigue. Christian Pulisic, pelvically contused, which apparently does not mean what we all thought it meant, has been cleared to play. Forward Josh Sargent’s status is doubtful after hurting his ankle. Even the healthy members of the team were wrung out by the end of the Iran match, collapsing to the ground upon the final whistle, overcome with emotion and exhaustion. The Netherlands, by contrast, got to coast through a game against already eliminated Qatar.

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But advanced stats say the Netherlands was outplayed for much of the group stage. Its expected goals (xG) are a fraction lower than the USMNT’s over the course of its three games, but so are its expected goals allowed (xGA), meaning it was a little bit worse at creating and seizing chances for itself and a little bit better at preventing opponents’ scoring opportunities. But the Netherlands didn’t have to defend against a team as good as England. It didn’t have a Gareth Bale penalty added to its xGA total, without which the American numbers would be superior. And it got to pad its stats against Qatar in the finale of the group stage, getting two-thirds of its xG there.

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Analytics aside, the Netherlands scored five goals in its three games and the U.S. only scored two. It is almost certainly due for a regression, but there is no guarantee that will happen within the next 90 minutes. It’s best to treat Cody Gakpo, scorer of three of the Dutch goals, like flames erupt from the ball, NBA Jam-style, every time he shoots. If you watch his goal against Ecuador, it’s not hard to imagine.

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But that was the Netherlands’ toughest game of the group stage, a 1–1 draw that Ecuador had the better of for much of the match. The Dutch looked cowed by the physicality and energy of the South Americans. “The duels were all for Ecuador and when that happens you cannot win,” Dutch coach Louis van Gaal said after the game. The Netherlands only pulled off the draw thanks to Gakpo activating the Large Hadron Collider in his left foot.

Hmm, what other team do you know in this tournament that has won praise for its intensity and tenacity? That has shown its capacity to cut supply lines to dangerous opposition forwards? That excels at creating the types of wide overloads Ecuador used to pull the Dutch defense apart?

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The American midfield of Tyler Adams, Yunus Musah, and Weston McKennie has wreaked havoc on each of its opponents, including a talented England side. Its defense has been world-class at stifling oppositions as they try to build their attacks. Its attack…well, occasionally its attackers are capable of perfection (see the Iran goal), just not often enough. The forwards and wingers will need to be on their game to beat the Dutch defense, marshaled by Liverpool center back Virgil van Dijk. (That goes double if Pulisic and Sargent can’t play.) Van Dijk might no longer be the world’s best defender, as he was a few years ago, but he’s an imposing challenge for a team that has struggled to score. The goal against Iran was immaculate, but it sure would be nice if the U.S. scored a thunderbolt out of nothing like Gakpo every now and then.

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This might be the key difference between the teams. The Dutch haven’t been great at generating goal-scoring chances for themselves, but so far they haven’t needed great chances to get on the board. This has mostly been about the play of Gakpo, but the squad also boasts forwards like Memphis Depay, Steven Bergwijn and Wout Weghorst, a massive target forward very much in the mold of Kieffer Moore, the Welsh substitute who gave the U.S. so much trouble in the second half of their game.

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Gakpo is almost three different players in one: he can play as a winger, an attacking midfielder, or a more conventional forward, meaning he can attack the U.S. goal from a variety of angles. The American defenders and midfielders will have to be mindful of how they pass responsibility for him on from one player to another, like a high-stakes Three-Card Monte. Iran’s Mehdi Taremi was another flexible threat, but where he often had to drop deep to find the ball, Gakpo plays in front of some elite ball progressors like left wingback Daley Blind and central midfielder Frenkie de Jong, allowing him to stay closer to goal and away from the USMNT’s wrecking ball midfield. De Jong became a cult figure with the Dutch club Ajax for his idiosyncratic skillset, taking off on winding dribbling runs despite playing defensive midfielder or center back. His flaws have been more exposed since moving to Barcelona, but he has thrived in the more individualistic international game, his country’s top performer behind Gakpo. His dribbling ability in the center of midfield should remind U.S. fans of Musah; de Jong tends to be a little more goal dangerous and a little less defensively active, but both have the ability to simply flow through challenges. Their battle in the center—who can relieve pressure on their defense, who can keep the other from advancing the ball—will go a long way toward determining who has the upper hand.

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With its individual skill in attack, the Dutch may be well suited to take advantage of the obvious American weakness: its tendency to flag late in games as players tire and substitutes aren’t able to match the performance of the players they replace. Senegal played the Netherlands mostly evenly until Gakpo headed in a pass from de Jong 84 minutes into the game. (Davy Klaassen would add another in the 99th minute.) But that late surge is a little misleading. The Dutch team managed just one second-half shot against Ecuador and only three in the second half against Qatar. It doesn’t seem built for protracted siege on the opponent’s goal. (Admittedly, it hasn’t yet trailed in this tournament, so it has hardly had the opportunity to mount one.)

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Still, the worry for the Americans extends further than just the three games of this tournament. The last two Round of 16 trips for the United States both ended in extra time when a young forward (Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan in 2010, Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku in 2014) simply outraced an exhausted U.S. center back to the ball before hammering home, no sophisticated build-up required. Walker Zimmerman, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Tim Ream, meet the 23-year-old Gakpo. The effort the American players expended against Iran in 90 minutes was enormous. If this game finishes tied after regulation and they have to play 30 more, they may be sitting ducks, 10 guys standing around in their own box while the indefatigable Adams continues charging around, trying to plug every leak himself.

The game is a favorable matchup for both teams in different ways. The USMNT has the blueprint to beat the Dutch and is well-suited to use it, but it also might be vulnerable to certain Dutch strengths. The winner will be the one able to shore up its weaknesses, and exploit its opponent’s. The loser will have to start over, with an eye toward 2026.

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