On Saturday evening in Qatar, the United States could not overcome three ruthless strikes from the Netherlands. The Dutch side, World Cup finalist a dozen years ago and the third place finisher at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, defeated the United States 3-1 in the Round of 16, sending the U.S. home to start thinking ahead to 2026, when North America plays host to the world’s most popular sporting event.
The U.S. has only defeated a European team once—a 3-2 victory over Portugal in 2002—at the World Cup since 1990. The Americans are 1-12-7 against Europe during that stretch.
Christian Pulisic, the United States star who suffered a pelvic contusion on a collision while scoring Team USA’s lone goal on Tuesday in a must-win group stage game against Iran, recovered in time to take the field, as he promised. And he had a golden early chance. Just over two minutes into the match, Tyler Adams lofted a neat ball into the penalty area that Pulisic chased down. But he didn’t get enough on the ball on a close-range shot; Netherlands goalie Andries Noppert nicked away.
In the 10th minute, Memphis Depay of the Netherlands outran Adams, who’s been terrific all tournament, to the top of the box, and punched a pretty cross into the net to give Netherlands a 1-0 lead. Near the end of the first half, Tim Weah fired a laser from a distance that Noppert punched away. Daley Blind, in first half extra time, gave the Netherlands insurance, again making a sleeping U.S. defense play by sneaking into the middle and firing a one-touch shot past Matt Turner to put the Dutch up 2-0.
The U.S. made a sub for the second half, inserting 20-year-old striker Gio Reyna into the lineup for some quick scoring. To the consternation of many pundits and fans, Reyna, who suits up for Borussia Dortmund in Germany, barely played during the Group Stage, just getting a few late minutes against England on November 25. The U.S. applied some early second half pressure, as defenseman Tim Ream got a shot on goal early in the half that a Dutch player had to kick off the line.
The U.S. made two more offensive-minded subs before the 70th minute, sending Brenden Aaronson and Haji Wright into the game. The Wright sub paid off almost immediately: in the 76th minute, he touched a Pulisic cross into the back corner of the net to cut the deficit in half.
Wright’s heroics set up a furious finish. But in the 81st minute, the Netherlands had too much time to operate: Denzel Dumfries snuck behind Ream on the far post, to put a cross into the net and put the U.S. away.
If anything, the game displayed a key difference between a historically strong European side and the upstart U.S. The Netherlands operated with ruthless efficiency, capitalizing on U.S. mistakes with direct offensive sequences that resulted in goals. The Americans have four years to work on their technical ability.
Read More: How to Watch the 2022 World Cup
The United States accomplished its goal at the Qatar World Cup: making it to knockout round. Coach Gregg Berhalter never shied away from those expectations, noting before the tournament that generations are marked by World Cup performance. Past American teams that made it to the knockout round have been admired, others derided. Yes, the U.S. was the second youngest team coming into this World Cup. But it was also historically talented, as this young generation was suiting up for squads like Chelsea and Juventus.
And in 2026, Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Adams, the team captain will be 27. Weah will be 26. Reyna will be 23. All core players in their prime, at a home World Cup. Expectations, correctly, will be raised, and hopes for a longer knock-out state run higher than ever. The Qatar World Cup offered thrilling moments for American soccer. And it could go down as an all-time tuneup.
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