DOHA, Qatar — The crushing blow that eliminated the US men’s team from the 2022 World Cup was a Dutch masterpiece with 21 assists. It was class and the epitome of ruthlessness, a clockwork orange front to back and front to back. This undermined the optimism of the Americans, which had grown over the two weeks in Qatar, and ultimately forced the American team to trudge to their traditional outing.
This led Netherlands 3, US 1 here at the Khalifa International Stadium on Saturday to a game during which the USMNT slammed its head into its current ceiling. This resulted in drooping shoulders and weak voices, products of a too abrupt end.
The Americans were ready to take on the challenge of the Dutch being able to trade blows with the European heavyweight in what at times felt like a fight. “We were right in the game,” a gutted Christian Pulisic later said.
But they expired in moments, in a fraction of a second, separating the haves from the have-nots.
“That’s what good teams do,” Pulisic said. “They are punishing you.”
They bounced back from a two-goal deficit at half-time and scored with 15 minutes left. The rough, clumsy finish of Hadji Wright woke 44,846 fans from their slumber and rekindled dreams for a moment.
But Denzel Dumfries answered after a few minutes. The fight wasn’t enough. After all, the Dutch quality was.
The Yankees were confident and zealous, and for eight minutes it seemed that they were superior to their rivals. They were then amazed by the football royals while sleeping. The Netherlands put them into a trance and then lashed out with a talent that the US hadn’t seen in this World Cup. Frankie De Jong played with them. Memphis Depay dismantled them in midfield and then penalized Tyler Adams and his fellow midfielders for falling behind.
“Three goals came at moments when we probably sleep a little,” Adams admitted.
Toward half-time, Daly Blind scored the second goal, sneaking through the slow half-step of the US defense. And yet, with 45 minutes left to play, the World Cup campaign that held so much promise seemed to have ended in failure.
“It was cruel. It was cruel to refuse this extra goal,” goalkeeper Matt Turner said. “There is no real justification for this. Everything that could go wrong in this play went wrong.”
The US had several notable chances and one great chance to write a different script. The ping-pong ball bounced to Pulisic alone in the box after just three minutes.
“I thought I was offside when it happened,” Pulisic said after the game, but that was not the case. “I hit it anyway,” he said, but Netherlands goalkeeper Andries Noppert made a great save.
When asked if he wants to return this chance, Pulisic replied: “Of course, man. It hurts.”
A goal there would have changed the game. The goal really changed the game six minutes later. The Dutch swung the ball from side to side in their defensive third, then sent it in and out of midfield with rhythmic movements and four successive one-touch passes that made Adams and Weston McKenny dizzy. Adams then lost sight of Depay, who scored the very first open game goal against the United States in the entire tournament.
But two more would come and Dumfries would be the main threat on the Dutch right.
And it is the very players who have evoked so much optimism about the present and the future that have made costly mistakes. Perhaps their legs were paralyzed after three titanic efforts in the group stage. Perhaps they were paralyzed by the moment. Perhaps the Dutch, the originators of many of the tactics and styles that define modern football, were just one step ahead.
“We had as many chances as they did,” said American midfielder Brenden Aaronson. Expected Goal Models supported him. “But…they were more clinical than us.”
They, the Dutch, were also a well-prepared team that did not lose under coach Louis van Gaal. They also had forwards who played or would play in the biggest clubs in the world, while the US had 21-year-old Dallas forward Jesús Ferreira. He seemed overwhelmed by the stage and the growth of the opponent and was replaced at half-time by the underutilized Gio Reina.
The defeat, however, was not in individuals. Perhaps it was fatigue. Basically, it was about the level to which the Netherlands has risen and which the United States has not yet reached.
On paper, he leaves USMNT exactly where he was in 2010 and 2014, with one World Championship win and a round of 16 exit. The optimistic forecast is that this was done with the youngest team in the tournament. This run was fueled by progressive football and a reformed youth development system that has only gotten better in the ten years since the team’s current stars emerged.
In the meantime, these stars will be in their prime when, in less than four years, the Men’s World Championships take place on home soil. Pulisic, McKenny and Adams will each be 27. Tim Weah will be 26. Brenden Aaronsohn and Serginho Dest will be 25. Reina and Yunus Musa will be 23.
But that’s then. Here and now, in Khalifa, Adams tipped over, then fell to his knee, then ducked, then on his ass, deflated, defeated.
As the orange-clad players hugged each other and jumped happily inside the center circle, the zombie gazes of the American players pierced the Doha air.
A few minutes later in the American dressing room “silence [was] deafening,” Turner said. “Everyone is disappointed, everyone is in a gloomy mood.”
“I mean the future is bright. Lots of young guys and a lot to look forward to,” said Aaronson. “But I don’t really think about it right now.
They thought about the present, living intensely in the moment. They listened to the “grandfather” of their group, Tim Rome, who preached to young 20s: “Treat every workout as if [it’s your] last, every game is like [it’s your] last.”
He knew that many of them would have a better chance of winning the World Cup. “But for me,” he said at the age of 35, “it won’t happen.”
So, as he stood motionless on the field, he reflected on his journey. As the 26th out of 26 players to pass the post-match zone, he was overwhelmed with emotion. He was disappointed, like everyone else.
But also grateful for the opportunity and for the group of relatives who fought for him and for each other.
“I tried to convey to the guys: in this game you are not guaranteed anything,” he said. “I saw how they followed this advice during the three weeks that we were together. So, yeah, I just hope they keep doing it.”