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The U.S. Crashes Out of the World Cup—but There’s Reason for Optimism

The difference in quality with the Dutch was not so much about technique or talent but poise and ruthlessness. Experience will fix that for this young U.S. core.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Coulda gone differently. I think that’s the main takeaway here. 3-1 looks like a bad loss, but soccer goals don’t always tell the whole story of soccer games. That’s one reason soccer is such a fun and maddening sport.

The Netherlands was a slightly better team than the United States in their round of 16 World Cup match on Saturday. The Dutch were calmer, more clinical, more composed, more tactically adaptable. But this wasn’t some 40-point NBA brass-knuckles-in-the-alley-type beating. The U.S. had 58 percent of possession and more shots on goal. The teams’ xG stayed close, but the U.S. had the edge there, too, 1.89 to 1.85. Couple of things break differently and this is a different result. Not exactly a world-shattering thing to say after a sporting event, but I am a servant of the truth.

What things could have broken differently? Well, Tyler Adams is a meteor and a king and an inspiration, but he kind of lost the plot on Memphis Depay’s goal, the Netherlands’ first. Sergiño Dest, a dude who’s actually from the Netherlands, was AWOL on the second Dutch goal, scored by Daley Blind with the last kick of the first half. That was the goal that changed the whole character of the match, and I felt gutted for Dest, who spent most of the game attacking the Dutch with a fury only prodigal sons and disowned heirs can attain. Home is where the heart is, except when it’s kicking your ass.

Something else that could have broken differently: We don’t have many good finishers, but woof, there were a lot of loose balls rattling around the Dutch box. A couple of them should have gone in. Tim Ream nearly knocked one home in the 49th minute, during one of those weird interludes of chaos when every living being in the stadium—all 44,000 people, plus an unknown number of insects and small birds and microorganisms—suddenly lost track of the ball at the same time. Every shot an American player took seemed to fly over the crossbar or tractor-beam directly into the gloves of the Dutch goalkeeper, Andries Noppert. And, yes, that can be read as a sign that we need an upgrade in attack. But it can also be read as a sign that this was a match in which all the minute, uncontrollable variables—tiny shifts of air molecules, faint degrees of spin—were wearing bright orange shirts that they bought with their families’ tulip fortunes.

It was a pretty even game, is what I’m saying. I can imagine a stuffy British commentator (my favorite kind) calling it “a closely fought affair.” And that’s before we mention the gaping chance in the third minute that Christian Pulisic couldn’t quite convert. Pulisic was very definite in informing the world that he had not been hit in the balls when he went down injured after scoring against Iran, and you had to wonder if the excruciating pain he wasn’t still feeling had slowed him down a tad.

If that first chance goes in, hoo boy. Every single thing about the game would have gone differently. I’m saying that confidently, as someone who took quantum physics in college. I got a C-. That’s a passing grade, as we say at math conventions. Point is, I’m certified to talk about alternate realities. And if this had gone 1-0 United States in the third minute? Everything changes. Schrödinger’s cat isn’t just alive or dead in the box. Schrödinger’s cat is a direwolf.

Why am I dwelling on how tissue-thin this match’s margin was? Two reasons. One, because I’m proud of this team. We all talked a big game before the match about how winnable this one looked. But it’s one thing to note that the Dutch hadn’t been overwhelming in their group stage matches; it’s another thing to see the actual real-life Virgil van Dijk and Frenkie de Jong lining up on the other side of the pitch. It wasn’t immediately obvious that our young core, under Gregg Berhalter, was going to be able to hang with those two and Cody Gakpo under Louis van Gaal.

But we did! We kept it air-molecules close against a technically elite team led by one of the best managers in soccer history. I know—believe me, I know—that when you’re a soccer fan in the United States, moral victories get old fast. But this is the youngest American team ever to play a World Cup knockout game, and they’re starting their careers at a level that very few past U.S. teams could match. Where there was a quality difference with the Dutch, it was not so much in technique or talent as in poise and ruthlessness. The Dutch pounced mercilessly on every mistake. The Americans looked a little wild-eyed and skittish in front of goal.

And you know what’s great for teaching poise and ruthlessness? Experience.

So, yeah. I’m proud that this group of young guys put themselves in a position to learn that lesson. They belonged out there, not just against the Netherlands but also in the huge draw against England two games earlier. An average age of 24 and they’re only getting better from here. I can’t wait to find out what’s next for Weston McKennie’s hair, and honestly, it’s so much fun to cheer for a young team whose future is wide open. The world is Weston McKennie’s hair’s oyster. This rules.

And here’s the second reason I’m dwelling on the thinness of the margin: Because it’s the World Cup. And if the World Cup means anything, it means a place where huge numbers of people can come together in egregiously overreacting to literally every single thing that happens. Let’s not do that!

Did Haji Wright and Shaq Moore play well in Qatar? No (though Wright did manage to score the lone U.S. goal against the Netherlands, a fluky deflection he managed to flick in while I was in the act of writing a tweet criticizing him for wasteful shooting).

Did Berhalter’s tactics dazzle in their sophistication? Not really. The Dutch certainly seemed to know what to expect when the Americans were on the ball, and Berhalter’s failure to do anything to surprise them might have contributed to their aura of patience and calm.

So yes, there were weaknesses. Of course there were. But my Twitter timeline is already full of people exaggerating these weaknesses into catastrophic design flaws, as if the USMNT were the Death Star and everyone had just noticed the giant Explode The Death Star button in the middle. And maybe I’m in the wrong quantum reality here, but it just didn’t look that way to me. This team may only be 13 or 14 players deep, but those 13 or 14 players are really good.

For these guys at this tournament, reaching the round of 16 was always a good outcome, and they got there. The Dutch were always favored to win this game, and the Americans made them work for it. Everything went more or less as you’d have written it up beforehand, if you were being positive but also rational. We should be thinking in terms of moderate adjustments, incremental fixes, not wholesale baby-with-the-bathwater revolution. Cool heads ought to prevail. We wouldn’t have suddenly become the best team at the World Cup in the not-so-farfetched event that we’d won this game. By the same token, we’re not in crisis after a not-so-inevitable loss.

Am I being too optimistic? I don’t know. Maybe. We lost, which is a weird starting point for optimism. But man, I was lukewarm about this team before the tournament started, and in four games, they got me all the way on board. I can’t wait to see what’s next for them. Right now their future feels like a hard McKennie shot from way outside the area. Who knows if it’ll hit the target, but the sky’s the limit.