AL RAYYAN, Qatar — The United States players doubled over at the final whistle, their white jerseys drenched in sweat, their faces twisted with exhaustion. They hung their heads and left them there.
The Americans had arrived in Qatar last month fresh-faced and with modest expectations. They were the second-youngest team at the tournament, representing a country returning to the World Cup for the first time in eight years. Qualifying for the tournament had been cause enough for celebration.
But the grandeur of the World Cup, all the spirit and fanfare on the ground, has a way of making a group of players want more, of making them believe they can have it.
The Netherlands dashed those dreams — that little feeling of what if — in clinical fashion on Saturday night, exposing all the Americans’ deficiencies, making them look at once lifeless and aimless, in a 3-1 loss before 44,846 fans at Khalifa Stadium.
The US team will return home having achieved one small goal, vanquishing whatever lingering shame the program might have felt since 2017, when a previous team’s failure to qualify for the previous World Cup triggered a yearslong period of rebuilding and soul searching. But they may feel like they could have had more.
It was a satisfying result, meanwhile, for the Netherlands, whose ambitions for this World Cup were made clear when the team’s coach, Louis van Gaal, declared before the start of the knockout phase that his team had four matches left to play. They will play again on Friday night, meeting the winner of the match between Argentina and Australia on Saturday night.
Credit…Julian Finney/Getty Images
Ambition, for an American men’s soccer team, can be a trickier thing to articulate.
In 2014, the last time the United States took part in the World Cup, Jurgen Klinsmann, the team’s coach at the time, mused before a ball was even kicked that his group had no chance of winning the tournament. He said he was being realistic. A few sports pundits in the US responded by suggesting Klinsmann, a native of Germany, leave the country. (The team was eliminated that year in the Round of 16.)
Heading into this year’s tournament, American Coach Gregg Berhalter assumed a safer, savvier stance. Whenever the subject of ambitions arose, he would say that he viewed the World Cup as two smaller tournaments — a round robin followed by a separate single-elimination competition — and that his only aim was to make it to the second one, where, presumably , anything could happen. It was a useful bit of rhetoric, a sort of verbal stepover dribble. But it wasn’t hard to read between the lines, either. Anything after the group stage would be gravy.
In that sense, the United States and many of their fans will be generally pleased with the body of work it produced in Qatar.
The team largely outplayed Wales, its first opponent, then let victory slip from its grasp with the concession of a late penalty kick. It stood toe to toe with England, sparring to a scoreless draw that was celebrated like a win. It faced Iran in a pressure filled, win-or-go-home final group stage match and, despite a few nervous moments in the dying moments of the evening, delivered on the objective.
The players in those three games moved with cohesion. They ran hard and worked for one other. They were the second-youngest team by average age at the tournament, older only than Ghana, yet they played with a collective composition that belonged to their years.
All of that interconnectedness seemed to dissolve on Saturday.
The Dutch, having been content to absorb pressure in the early moments of the game, opened the scoring in the 10th minute, capping a sweeping, full-field move — one that involved an impressive 21 passes — with a strike from Memphis Depay that whizzed into the lower left corner of the goal. Depay was wide open on the play, having escaped the attention of the American defensive and midfield lines by loitering in the space between them.
Denzel Dumfries, who assisted Depay on the goal, supplied a similar ball for the Netherlands’ second goal just before the halftime whistle. Once again the American defense looked half-asleep as a cross zipped through the penalty area from the right wing. This time it was Daley Blind, the Dutch wingback, who slipped in front of goal unattended to score.
Dumfries then added a goal of his own, in the 81st minute.
The United States’ only goal came in the 76th minute, seemed to defy the laws of physics. Christian Pulisic drilled a cross into the box, and Haji Wright could only grace it with the outside of his right cleat, which was facing away from the goal. But the ball jumped off Wright’s foot, looped parabolically into the air, and curled somehow inside the left post.
In the general American consciousness, which seems to become attuned to the doings of its national soccer squad only once every four years, the team may now enter a period of suspended animation. Other games and competitions will return once again to the foreground of the country’s sports landscape.
But behind the scenes the gears will keep turning. Berhalter is nearing the end of a four-year contract, and a decision will soon have to be made, by the coach and team, about whether he should stay on for another four-year term to nurture and shape the squad before the 2026 World Cup.
GIPHY App Key not set. Please check settings