DOHA, Qatar — The devastating blow that knocked the United States men’s national team out of the 2022 World Cup was a 21-pass Dutch masterpiece. He was class and ruthlessness personified, clockwork orange from front to back to front. It squashed the American optimism that had been building during the two weeks in Qatar, and ultimately prompted the American team to trudge towards the traditional exit.
It led to Netherlands 3, US 1 here at Khalifa International Stadium on Saturday, and a game during which the USMNT crashed its head into its current roof.
“The silence is deafening,” United States goaltender Matt Turner said after the game. “Everyone is disappointed, everyone is in a gloomy mood.”
The Americans rallied from a two-goal halftime deficit and pulled a goal back with 15 minutes left. Haji Wright’s wickedly floaty finale woke 44,846 fans from a slumber and rekindled their dreams.
But Denzel Dumfries replied minutes later. Rematch wasn’t enough. In the end, Dutch quality was.
The Americans were confident and eager, and for a full eight minutes seemingly superior. Then they were shot while snoozing by soccer royalty. The Netherlands lulled them into a trance, then launched into a talent unlike any the United States had seen at this World Cup. Memphis Depay separated them in midfield, then punished Tyler Adams and his midfield teammates for being late.
On the stroke of half-time, Daley Blind scored a double, sneaking inside a slow half-pitch American defense. And with that, even though there were still 45 minutes to play, a season that had offered so much hope essentially ended in disaster.
The United States arrived at the Khalifa buoyed by a heartbreaking but captivating 1-0 victory against Iran. It energized America and felt like a breakthrough, capital M Moment. For the USMNT, however, it was simply the completion of one tournament within the World Cup and the start of a second.
Christian Pulisic’s goal, to many, looked similar to Landon Donovan’s against Algeria in 2010, but when asked about those comparisons a couple of days later, Pulisic said: “I hope I haven’t had that moment, actually. I hope he is in front of me.
The Netherlands, however, had other ideas and had something the US didn’t have: finalists.
The United States had a glorious chance to write a different script. A ping pong ball bounced off an onside Pulisic all alone in the penalty area after just three minutes. But his shot in the third minute was saved. Other promising strikes, like so many from the United States during the group stage, were squandered.
And in midfield, the very players who had inspired so much optimism, for the present and for the future, have made costly mistakes. Perhaps their legs were gone after three herculean shots in the group stage. Perhaps they were paralyzed by the moment. Whatever the reason, Adams and Weston McKennie were looped around in midfield and lost track of Depay as the Barcelona forward advanced towards the top of the box, found a weak spot between midfield and defense and scored the first goal from open play against USA all tournaments.
But two more were to come, with Dumfries the main threat along the Dutch right flank. The United States had a lot of possession and, at times, control. But he was constantly vulnerable, and almost taken aback by the technical prowess and tactical awareness of his opponents.
It was then deflated by the last kick of the first half.
“It was brutal. Giving up that extra goal was brutal,” Turner said in a postgame interview. “It was on a throw-in. There’s no real excuse for that. Everything that could have gone wrong on that play did.”
USA coach Gregg Berhalter brought on Gio Reyna at halftime, for Jesús Ferreira, who started in front of an injured Josh Sargent, but looked overwhelmed and outclassed by a world-class Dutch defense.
The defeat, however, did not concern individuals. Maybe it was tiredness. But that was mostly a level that the Netherlands had achieved and that the United States has not yet achieved.
On paper, he leaves the USMNT exactly where it was in 2010 and 2014, with just one World Cup win and one knockout exit. The optimistic outlook is that this has been achieved with the youngest team in the tournament. This run was fueled by progressive football and players nurtured 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 at their prime when the men’s World Cup arrives at home in less than four years. Pulisic, McKennie and Adams will be 27 years old. Tim Weah 26. Brenden Aaronson and Sergiño Dest 25. Reyna and Yunus Musah 23.
But that’s it then. Here and now, at the Khalifa, Adams ducked, then dropped to one knee, then crouched, then backside, deflated, defeated.
Here and now, there was just a stark reminder that despite all of the USMNT’s progress, there’s still a lot to do.