All those wins in the 2021 Concacaf Nations League and at the 2021 Gold Cup added up, boosting the USA's points in the FIFA rankings and assuring it a second seed in the 2022 World Cup draw.
Mexico, Denmark and Uruguay were also placed in Pot 2, and all failed to get out of the group stage. It takes a little luck at the World Cup and a favorable draw certainly helped the USA.
Five of the eight teams in Pot 3 are still alive while a sixth team, Tunisia, beat France, the defending champion. Instead, the USA drew Iran. All the teams it could have faced in Pot 4 other than Wales won at least game.
Still, the USA's progress into the final 16, where it faces the Netherlands on Saturday, meant it was doing something right. After struggling throughout qualifying to put together a full window of good results — it needed goal difference to edge Costa Rica for third place — the USA did something it has never done and played three good games — three great first halves followed by three no so great second halves — to move into the knockout round.
Here are five things the USA has gotten right (and will need to continue to do against the Dutch) ...
1. Matt Turner, the distributor.
Turner put himself in position to win the starting job in goal for the USA because of his shot-blocking, but he's has not had to do much of that at the World Cup.
He's faced just five shots on goal and allowed one goal from the penalty spot in three games.
His distribution, much improved since moving to Arsenal last summer, has been a revelation, though. He started the winning goal sequence against Iran with a long pass to Timothy Weah and rarely looked nervous with the ball at his feet.
Against England, Turner once got out of pressure by dribbling into midfield and then releasing the ball. “I touched into my inner Jorge Campos," he said with a laugh.
"I know he plays for Arsenal, but c'mon," added captain Tyler Adams, whose job it is to organize the defense.
2. Best version of Sergino Dest.
Of all the dual nationals who have committed to the USA, Dest is the most heralded. He picked the USA over the Netherlands two months after debuting for Ajax.
In his second season, he signed with Barcelona and played alongside Lionel Messi while winning the Copa del Rey. No American has started his career with three clubs of these calibers: Ajax, Barcelona, AC Milan.
For all his talent, he only had a few good games for the USA in the Concacaf Nations League and World Cup 2022 qualifying. And he struggled for playing time in his second season at Barca and after his loan move to Milan in late summer. Few would have expected Dest to play as well as he has in Qatar.
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter praised Dest's mental toughness, saying he has taken his game to another level at the World Cup, becoming a constant threat with his dribbling on the right side.
"He has been fantastic for us," said Berhalter. "I can't say enough about his defending in the penalty box, his ball security. Everything has been really good."
3. Tim Ream's renaissance.
Ream is no newcomer to the national team or to Berhalter. He played in the 2011, 2015 and 2019 Gold Cups and in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
But after starting the opening game of 2022 qualifying — a 0-0 tie at El Salvador — he disappeared from the scene. He did not get another call-up as Walker Zimmerman, Miles Robinson and Chris Richards earned all the starts in the middle of the USA's backline over the last three windows of qualifying.
But when Robinson and Richards got hurt, Ream played so well for Fulham that he gave Berhalter no choice but to call him back for the World Cup. The knock on Ream was that he wasn't quick enough to play the USA's high line, but that has not been an issue in Qatar.
“You don’t ever give up hope," Ream said. "You never completely say you’re out of the picture, I didn’t expect to be here, involved in a World Cup. It’s something that we all dream of as a kid.”
Ream has been calm on the ball, and the U.S. defensive shape has generally been so good that any issues about his lack of speed have not been exposed.
4. MMA's growing maturity.
Another break for the USA is that Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah and Tyler Adams have all been healthy at the same time.
McKennie and Adams debuted for the USA in its first match after Couva in 2017, but Musah, who turned 20 on Tuesday, didn't play his first game until the first match back after the pandemic lock-down in 2020. They were quickly dubbed the MMA, but injuries and suspension limited them to just five matches together during World Cup qualifying, ranging from the 2-0 home win over Mexico, its best performance, to a 2-0 loss at Canada when it was out-muscled.
The MMA's growing maturity has probably been the biggest reason for the USA's success in group play. Adams was one of the best players of the group stage, while McKennie and Musah took on different roles over the three games, popping up all over the field in front of Adams.
At the defensive end, the MMA's organization has limited the ability of opponents to test Turner. On the offensive end, McKennie had his best game ever for the USA in the 1-0 win over Iran, spraying balls over the field, including the ball over the top to Dest on the play that finished with Christian Pulisic's goal.
The MMA has even earned a lot of respect in the international press. L'Equipe, the French sports daily, published a long tactical analysis on the U.S. play, dubbing the midfield the "triangle d'or" (the golden triangle).
5. Weah in a new role.
This is the same MMA that struggled badly to break teams down during much of qualifying. Adams, Musah and McKennie are not playmakers, limiting the trio's ability to break down packed defenses.
One factor in the U.S. midfield's dominance — at least for about the first 60 minutes of each of the three group matches — is the support provided by Tim Weah and Dest on the right side and Pulisic, dropping back into midfield, on the left with Antonee Robinson often lining up in front of him.
Weah was the USA's most consistent attacker in qualifying with his ability to turn the corner with individual efforts, but he has taken on a new role at the World Cup, scoring one goal and having another called off for offside after making runs across the middle to take passes from Pulisic and McKennie.
More important, Weah has joined Dest and Pulisic in giving the USA four, five and often six players in midfield, where their combination play has often overwhelmed opponents.
Photos: John Todd/ISI Photos