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, with 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 in a 3-1 loss before 44,846 fans at Khalifa International Stadium.
“This is a tough one obviously to swallow for us,” Coach Gregg Berhalter said. “The guys put everything they had into it. It’s such a good group of guys, such a close-knit group of guys, you just want more for them, and tonight we just came up short.”
The U.S. 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 last World Cup triggered a yearslong period of rebuilding and soul searching. It may feel like it could have gone further.
But it was a satisfying result for the Netherlands, a team whose ambitions for this World Cup were made clear when its coach declared before the start of the round of 16 that his squad had four matches left to play. The Netherlands will play again on Friday night against the winner of Saturday’s late match between Argentina and Australia.
Ambition, for an American men’s soccer team, can be a trickier thing to articulate.
In 2014, the last time the United States participated in the World Cup, Jürgen 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. Some fans in the United States 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, 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. The first was the group stage where each of the 32 teams played three games. Burhalter said his only aim was to make it to the second, the knockout stage where 16 teams would eventually produce a champion and in theory anything could happen. It was a useful bit of rhetoric, a sort of verbal step-over dribble. But it was not hard to read between the lines. For his young U.S. team, anything after the group stage would be gravy.
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In that sense, the United States and many of its fans will be generally pleased with the body of work the team produced in Qatar.
The United States largely outplayed Wales, its first opponent, only to let victory slip from its grasp with the concession of a late penalty kick, resulting in a 1-1 tie. It stood toe to toe with England, one of the tournament favorites, sparring to a scoreless draw that was celebrated like a win. It faced Iran in a pressure-packed, win-or-go-home final group-stage match soaked in geopolitics and, despite a nervous few moments in the dying minutes of the evening, delivered a 1-0 victory.
The players in those three games moved with cohesion. They ran hard and worked for one other. They played with a collective composure that belied their years.
“The potential is very clear in this group,” goalkeeper Matt Turner said.
All of that interconnectedness seemed to dissolve on Saturday.
The Netherlands, 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 nearly two dozen passes — with a strike from Memphis Depay that whizzed into the lower left corner of the goal. Depay had been left wide open on the play, escaping the attention of the American defensive and midfield lines merely by loitering in the space between them.
Denzel Dumfries, who assisted Depay on the goal, supplied an almost identical pass for the Netherlands’ second goal just before halftime. Once again the American defense was caught flat-footed as Dumfries zipped the ball toward the front of the goal from the right wing. This time it was Daley Blind, the Dutch wingback, who slipped free from a defender to meet the pass and score.
The United States’ only goal came in the 76th minute and seemed to defy the laws of physics. Christian Pulisic drilled a cross into the box, and Haji Wright could only graze it by reaching back with the outside of his right foot, which was facing away from the goal. The ball jumped off Wright’s foot, looped parabolically into the air and curled somehow inside the left post.
Wright had given the Americans a lifeline at 2-1, but Dumfries pulled it away five minutes later when he finished from close range after he was left unmarked, again, by the U.S. defense.
“In the past three games, I’d say we defended really, really well,” midfielder Tyler Adams said. “And today, the three goals come from moments where we were probably sleeping a little bit.”
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.
“In the next couple weeks, I’ll clear my head, sit down and think about what’s next,” Berhalter said.
That tournament — for which the United States, Canada and Mexico will serve as joint hosts — has loomed large over this current team. It will mark the return of the world’s most-watched sporting event to North America since the 1994 World Cup. It will also be seen as the moment when the core of this young team should collectively enter its prime.
The current tournament may, by then, be dismissed by some as a dress rehearsal, a chance for the players, talented but still very green, to wet their feet. In that regard, it was a success. Pulisic, Tim Weah and Wright fulfilled childhood dreams by scoring their first World Cup goals. Adams, handed full-time captain duties for the tournament, established himself as the heartbeat of the team, the person turning their emotional dial from the center of midfield.
But after a tournament when so many things went right, and a night when so many things went wrong, there may linger a niggling feeling that they could have had more.