EletiofeWorld Cup 2022: U.S. outclassed, eliminated in 3-1 loss...

World Cup 2022: U.S. outclassed, eliminated in 3-1 loss to Netherlands

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DOHA, Qatar — The devastating blow that knocked the U.S. men’s national team out of the 2022 World Cup was a 21-pass Dutch masterpiece. It was class and ruthlessness personified, clockwork orange from front to back to front. It crushed American optimism that had swelled throughout two weeks in Qatar, and eventually sent the American team trudging toward their traditional exit.

It led to Netherlands 3, U.S. 1 here at the Khalifa International Stadium on Saturday, to a game during which the USMNT crashed head-first into its current ceiling. It led to slumped shoulders and weak voices, the products of an all-too-sudden end.

The Americans were up for the Dutch challenge, capable of trading jabs with a European heavyweight in what at times felt like an even fight. “We were right in the game,” a gutted Christian Pulisic later said.

But they lapsed in moments, in split seconds that separate haves and have-nots.

“That’s what good teams do,” Pulisic said. “They punish you.”

They recovered from a two-goal halftime deficit, and pulled a goal back with 15 minutes remaining. Haji Wright’s wicked, fluky finish awoke 44,846 fans from a slumber, and momentarily rekindled dreams.

But Denzel Dumfries answered a few minutes later. The fightback wasn’t enough. In the end, Dutch quality was.

The Yanks were confident and eager, and for eight whole minutes seemingly superior. Then they were struck while snoozing by soccer royalty. The Netherlands lulled them into a trance, then pounced with talent unlike any the U.S. had seen at this World Cup. Frenkie De Jong toyed with them. Memphis Depay picked them apart at midfield, then punished Tyler Adams and his midfield teammates for lagging.

“The three goals come from moments where we’re probably sleeping a little bit,” Adams admitted.

On the stroke of halftime, Daley Blind scored the second, by sneaking inside a half-step-slow U.S. defense. And with that, although there were 45 minutes still to play, a World Cup campaign that had offered so much hope seemed to end with a dud.

“That was brutal. To give up that extra goal was brutal,” goalkeeper Matt Turner said. “There’s no real excuse for it. Everything that coulda went wrong on that play did.”

The U.S. had several notable chances and one glorious chance to write a different script. A pingponging ball bounced to Pulisic all alone in the penalty area after just three minutes.

“I thought I was way offside when it happened,” Pulisic said postgame, but he wasn’t. “I still hit it,” he said, but Netherlands goalkeeper Andries Noppert made a fine save.

When asked whether he wanted the chance back, Pulisic said: “Of course, man. It hurts.”

A goal there would’ve changed the game. A goal did change the game six minutes later. The Dutch swung the ball side to side in their own defensive third, then pinged it into and out of midfield, with rhythmic movement and four consecutive one-touch passes that made Adams and Weston McKennie dizzy. Adams then lost track of Depay, who slotted home the very first goal from open play against the U.S. all tournament.

But two more would come, with Dumfries the chief menace down the Dutch right side.

And it was the very players who’d induced so much optimism, for the present and the future, who made costly mistakes. Perhaps their legs had gone after three herculean group-stage efforts. Perhaps they were paralyzed by the moment. Perhaps the Dutch, the godfathers of so many of the tactics and styles that define modern football, were just a step ahead.

“We had just as many chances as they did,” U.S. midfielder Brenden Aaronson argued, and some Expected Goals models backed him up. “But … they were more clinical than us.”

They, the Dutch, were also a well-drilled unit that has not lost under manager Louis van Gaal. They also had strikers who have played or will play at the world’s biggest clubs, whereas the U.S. had 21-year-old FC Dallas forward Jesús Ferreira. He seemed overwhelmed by the stage and stature of the opponent, and was replaced by the underused Gio Reyna at halftime.

The defeat, though, was not about individuals. It was perhaps about fatigue. It was mostly about a level that the Netherlands rose to, and that the U.S. hasn’t yet reached.

On paper, it leaves the USMNT precisely where it was in 2010 and 2014, with a single World Cup win and a Round of 16 exit. The optimistic outlook is that this one was accomplished with the youngest team at the tournament. This run was fueled by progressive soccer, and by a reformed youth development system that has only gotten better over the decade since it produced the team’s current stars.

Those stars, meanwhile, will be in their prime when the men’s World Cup comes to home soil less than four years from now. Pulisic, McKennie and Adams will be 27. Tim Weah will be 26. Brenden Aaronson and Sergiño Dest will be 25. Reyna and Yunus Musah will be 23.

But that is then. Here and now, at the Khalifa, Adams keeled over, then dropped to a knee, then sunk into a crouch, then onto his butt, deflated, defeated.

As orange-clad players flung their arms around one another and jumped joyously inside the center circle, zombie-like stares from U.S. players pierced the Doha air.

USA's Christian Pulisic reacts after a World Cup Round of 16 loss to Netherlands at Khalifa International Stadium on Dec. 3, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images)

USA’s Christian Pulisic reacts after a World Cup Round of 16 loss to Netherlands at Khalifa International Stadium on Dec. 3, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by James Williamson – AMA/Getty Images)

Minutes later, inside the U.S. locker room, “the silence [was] deafening,” Turner said. “Everyone’s disappointed, everyone is in a somber mood.”

“I mean, the future’s bright. A ton of young guys and a lot to look forward to,” Aaronson said. “But, not really thinking about that right now.”

They had been thinking about the present, living intensely in the moment. They’d been listening to the “grandpa” of their group, Tim Ream, who’d preached to the young 20-somethings: “Treat each and every training session as if [it’s your] last, each and every game as if [it’s your] last.”

He knew that many of them would have more World Cups to chase. “But for me,” he said, at age 35, “that’s not gonna happen.”

So, as he stood motionless on the field, he reflected on his journey. As the 26th of 26 players through a post-match interview zone, he welled with emotion. He was disappointed, just like the rest.

But also grateful, for opportunity, and for a group of relative babies who fought on his and one another’s behalf.

“I’ve tried to convey to the guys: You’re never guaranteed anything in this game,” he said. “I’ve seen them take that advice in these three weeks that we’ve been together. So, yeah, I just hope they continue to do that.”

Memphis Depay of Netherlands celebrates with teammates after scoring the team's first goal against the United States in the World Cup Round of 16 match at Khalifa International Stadium on December 03, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Memphis Depay of Netherlands celebrates with teammates after scoring the team’s first goal against the United States in the World Cup Round of 16 match at Khalifa International Stadium on December 03, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

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