It was the final, humbling scene of a spirited American recovery at this tournament. With a 3-1 victory, the Netherlands ousted the U.S. during the round of 16 on Saturday. No one is hustling to schedule a parade after this outcome, but for a program writhing near rock bottom and enduring ridicule four years ago, this run felt joyous. The incremental progress was clear, but more than that, the players performed in a matter that indicates they are on a path to immense growth. There is a cohesion and energy about the U.S. that should inspire belief.
After failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the U.S. underwent a classic sports rebuilding effort, going young, following the best practices of more successful nations and turning to a new leader in Coach Gregg Berhalter. The Americans had the second-youngest roster of the 32 teams in Qatar, and Berhalter chose to go with the youngest starting lineup combinations in the tournament, trusting players with an average age slightly under 25.
But they aren’t bunch of overwhelmed kids. They’re precocious. They play for European clubs, and the grandest stage in soccer does not intimidate them. They made it through three group-stage matches without a loss, a feat accomplished by just five of the 16 teams that advanced to the knockout round. Their athleticism and overall talent level stood out immediately, with their defense making the biggest impression. However, they managed just three goals during their run, a problem that could have been anticipated given their inconsistency creating offense during qualifying.
On Saturday, that youthful ebullience finally morphed into frustrating inexperience. The Netherlands, mature and tactical and skilled, played so well together. The Dutch met every consequential moment. On the other side, the U.S. fumbled opportunities, lost focus at key moments and huffed through 90 minutes in which fatigue became evident for a team that lacks ideal depth.
U.S. midfielder Christian Pulisic, who played after suffering a pelvic injury against Iran earlier in the week, missed a potential tone-setting opportunity within the first 2½ minutes. After an Adams header, Pulisic was alone inside the box, but he couldn’t angle his shot past Dutch goalkeeper Andries Noppert, who knocked away the effort with his left leg. The Americans owned the opening minutes, but for all their pressure, they fell behind 1-0 in the 10th minute when Netherlands forward Memphis Depay sprinted the middle of the field, took a cross from Denzel Dumfries and laced a one-timer past U.S. goalkeeper Matt Turner.
Seconds before intermission, the U.S. defenders dozed off again in the box and conceded a second goal that turned the last 45 minutes into a scramble. In the 76th minute, U.S. reserve Haji Wright cut the deficit in half, but soon after, the Netherlands twisted the dagger with a third goal. The Dutch victory was as thorough as the final score indicated. Still, from an American perspective, there were all these little mistakes that added up to the margin, so many lessons for the young players to learn about a methodical game that demands much more precision to become a true contender.
The U.S. should exit this World Cup with renewed hope that it is now developing the talent and the national team structure to form a program that can pay proper attention to all those details. America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition. Even though Pulisic has been celebrated and nicknamed “Captain America,” a revamped system was the star of the team’s improvement. Most of the starting 11 was solid, and there were a half dozen standouts who contributed greatly to success. Adams did not play his best Saturday, but overall, he was one of the players in this tournament who has flashed the most.
Four years ago, amid the embarrassment of not qualifying, it was hard to see many of these impact players on the horizon. Now, as the nation prepares to play a featured role in hosting the 2026 World Cup, there’s anticipation that the young core of this team will grow — and that there will be a few players in the 20-and-under range capable of adding to what has already been established.
After a collapse, a fresh start always arrives with excitement. Now comes the pressure to satisfy increased expectations. For all the promise these Americans showed, they still represent a country that has not won a World Cup knockout round match and advanced past the round of 16 since beating Mexico 20 years ago. This year’s run doesn’t just signal progress following a disaster. Sadly, it often signifies the ceiling for U.S. men’s soccer. So the enthusiasm people expressed was more than happiness in the moment. It was an emotional down payment for the future.
The pain of coming up short needs to be as intense as the optimism. Perhaps that’s why Adams sat on the field for so long. He had to collect himself before the grind starts anew.
World Cup in Qatar
The latest: The knockout stage continues at the World Cup on Saturday with another round-of-16 game between Argentina and Australia. Follow our live coverage for the latest news, analysis and highlights.
USMNT: The U.S. men’s national team fell to the Netherlands, 3-1, on Saturday in the opening match of the round of 16. The Netherlands, winners of Group A, had finished the group stage without a loss, conceding just a single goal. Its winning streak continues, while the U.S. run is over.
Knock out round schedule: A World Cup group stage filled with shocking upsets and dramatic turnarounds will now give way to a knockout round that promises more surprises.
Today’s WorldView: Ishaan Tharoor, The Post’s foreign desk columnist, chronicles his week at the World Cup in Qatar.