As his players crumbled after spending full time at the Khalifa International Stadium, their World Cup dreams shattered, USA head coach Gregg Berhalter stepped onto the pitch brandishing his Moleskine notebook. As he moved through the crowd – wrapping his arm around a crying Tim Weah, offering words of consolation to Christian Pulisic, applauding American fans – the notebook remained with him, held aloft seemingly like a symbol of the task ahead if the United States are to progress further than this at their home World Cup in 2026. A manager ready to get back to work at the very moment of defeat sends a strong message, but in truth, the technical and tactical shortcomings displayed throughout the United States’ defeat to a ruthless Dutch team suggests that more work was needed before Berhalter’s side landed in Doha. What this team lacked most throughout the World Cup was basic football intelligence, the kind of intelligence the Dutch have shown in spades. Like Gio Reyna, Berhalter’s moleskin came to Qatar too late.
A round of 16 exit looks like an even score for the United States, and there is of course no indignity in descending to one of the great nations of world football; America can take some satisfaction in being among the top 16 teams in the world; etc But the clichés and ritualistic expressions of pride cannot hide that the way the United States has come out here has been particularly disappointing. A country of the size, wealth and ambition of America – not to mention a country in which football is such a popular and enduring sport of participation – should aspire to more at the World Cup.
“It’s hard to deal with,” Berhalter said in an on-court interview after full time. “We failed today, but not for lack of effort.” The effort may not have been lacking, but many other qualities essential to footballing success were: off-the-ball engagement, defence, brutality in front of goal. Despite the precision of the opposition’s finish, the United States has not been undone by moments of individual genius, vagaries of technology or other acts of semi-divine footballing intervention; instead, their demise was almost entirely self-inflicted. American chess was about defense and attack, core areas of basic technical skill. Truly, it was a team that saved the worst for last.
Heading into the knockout stages, all four American defenders – an area many have identified heading into this World Cup as a weakness – had proved remarkably resilient, stifling England’s star-studded frontline , keeping Iran at bay in the final group game, and conceding only one goal (the result of Walker Zimmerman’s agricultural lunge over Gareth Bale in their opener against Wales). The story here was a disheartening reversal. All three Netherlands goals were the result of a failure to follow and shut down the players, a breakdown in the Berhalter press. Despite their obvious prowess and forward thrust, America’s wide players too often turned off when the Dutch had the ball; All the marauding in the world won’t matter if you give up on defense and allow opposing attackers to meet balls in the penalty area unchallenged. Antonee Robinson’s failure to score Denzel Dumfries for the third goal – leaving the Dutchman wide open at the far post with seemingly enough time before he volleyed past Matt Turner to compose and post a letter of thanks to Robinson at his home – was particularly poor, reflecting not nerves or a lack of physical form but a sort of senselessness. Other shortcomings were of the same order: cashing in just before half-time – the canonical danger zone of football – is a lack of concentration, of game management.
At the other end of the field, things were not much better, despite the openings created by Weah, Pulisic and Sergiño Dest. After tinkering with first Josh Sargent, then Haji Wright, then Sargent again as the starting striker during the group stage, Berhalter preferred Jesus Ferreira here, but the FC Dallas striker struggled to get on the spot. ball. Pulisic will regret the golden chance he repelled in the third minute, but the true emblem of America’s labors in front of goal was Wright, who came on late as the USA chased the game, took a appalling first touch as he was clear on goal with only Dutch keeper Andries Noppert to beat, then scored by accident minutes later, the ball flying off the back of his heel from a low cross and then passing to the above Noppert’s head. The image of an American forward missing a chance when he should have scored and then scoring when he didn’t want to offer a distressingly stark summary of the USMNT’s struggles in front of goal at this World Cup. In truth, none of Wright, Sargent or Ferreira convinced in Qatar, and against the Dutchman Berhalter kept Reyna, his only real wildcard on the bench, until it was too late.
Ultimately, this game, like the USA World Cup more generally, was defined by scarcity: a lack of quality on offense and a lack of application on defense. For the USMNT, it’s been a tournament of good halves immediately followed by bad halves, decent possession and a clean finish – a real priest’s egg. With the possible exception of the meeting with England, at no time did the team prove capable of truly controlling a game from start to finish. Iran could and probably should have scored in the second half of the final group game, the late concession to a mediocre Welsh side was a practical own goal, and all the initial brightness of the United States in possession did not go away. nothing given against the Dutch. The USMNT has now fully atoned for the 2017 debacle, and while this team still doesn’t quite have the sense of “identity” that Berhalter claimed to have after a full-time run against the Dutch, there is at least a clear overview of who their most important players are: Tyler Adams, Pulisic and Weah. There has been no shortage of stars, players to inspire genuine optimism as the team heads into 2026. Yunus Musah brings a touch of Iberian class to the midfield, allowing this team to play in a much more cultured style than was the case for previous USMNT vintages. Although disappointing in the round of 16, Dest and Robinson both brought a zest for American forays down the flanks. And Tim Ream has been solidly composed at the back, although it’s unclear whether the Fulham veteran’s late career can stretch until 2026 when he’ll be on the threshold of his forties.
No doubt the official narrative of this tournament will be about hope, small steps, progress on and off the pitch and all there is to look forward to in 2026. Immediately after the game, Adams expressed his hope that Team USA “gave the fans something to get excited about moving forward,” adding, “We’re not there yet, but we’re close. But are they There’s been a lot of talk about how young this team is – as Fox commentators repeatedly reminded American viewers throughout the game, the United States have the second-youngest team in the World Cup – but these players are not children, they are mature professionals: Pulisic is 24, Robinson is 25, Turner is 28, Adams is 23.
As Arsene Wenger once said of his then-promising young striker Emmanuel Adebayor, “At 23, it’s time to play.” Despite the United States’ valiant performance in Qatar, it’s debatable whether the so-called golden generation has the talent or the consistency to put together a string of performances that will take them further than this at a World Cup. On the one hand, this is a developing team with clear room for improvement. On the other hand, scoring and defending tend to be two fairly important parts of the sport. If the USMNT can’t do it now, will it ever?