A fresh-faced United States squad arrived in Qatar with modest expectations and although it may leave with a sense of disappointment after another last-16 exit, its performances have offered hope of a longer run when it co-hosts the 2026 tournament.
After an encouraging group campaign, a young team brimming with confidence entered the knockout phase believing it could deliver another plot twist in a tournament where underdogs have consistently punched above their weight.
The U.S. largely outplayed Wales in its opener but let victory slip after conceding a late penalty, and went toe-to-toe with heavy favourite England in a scoreless stalemate. Needing a win over Iran to advance, Gregg Berhalter’s side delivered, surviving nervous moments at the end to earn the first victory of its campaign.
The U.S. frustrated opponents with its excellent pressing style as well as an organised and disciplined defence in those games, offsetting its profligacy in front of goal and poor set-piece delivery. Those shortcomings caught up with it against the Netherlands on Saturday when the U.S., the only team not to concede from open play during the group stage, found itself trailing for the first time in the campaign.
Their three defensive lapses were punished as the Dutch scored on each occasion. Denzel Dumfries was the architect of U.S.’s demise in a Netherlands attack which strung together one-touch passes like clockwork to carve open the American midfield.
Christian Pulisic spurned a gilt-edged early chance before a vintage Dutch build-up that included 20 uninterrupted passes, helped along by an uncharacteristic error from U.S. captain Tyler Adams, was rounded off by Memphis Depay’s crisp finish.
“We don’t have a Memphis Depay,” Berhalter said. “Their first attack was basically a goal. They were clinical with their opportunities in the first half. Other than that, there wasn’t a ton separating the two teams.”
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Daley Blind’s goal, scored just before the break in almost identical fashion, was a true gut-punch and although Haji Wright fortuitously gave the Americans a lifeline with a deflected shot, Dumfries soon restored his team’s two-goal cushion.
The American campaign may have ended in disappointingly familiar fashion — it has exited in the first knockout round in its last three appearances — but its next World Cup match will be on home soil when key players in the current squad should be in their prime.
On its return to the world stage after eight years, the U.S. fielded four of the five youngest line-ups of the competition and was the second youngest of the 32 squads with an average age of 25 years 214 days when the tournament began.
Pulisic, Adams, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Tim Weah and Sergino Dest were among 19 players making their World Cup debuts. The previous record for the U.S. team stood at 16, set in the 1990 tournament when it bowed out in the group stage.
The quality of the squad combined with its progress during the tournament sparked discussions about the next American golden generation. Berhalter was reluctant to place that burden on his players but this time it does not feel like promotional bluster.