USA exits World Cup to a familiar feeling, a case of men against boys

The end of each World Cup comes quickly and brutally.

The USA waited almost eight and half years to return to the finals, and it's going home after only 13 days.

Each World Cup has the same rhythm. Each extra day in the tournament is a chance to sell soccer to a wider American public. Interviews with players on the national morning shows. Fan shots at local bars on the local news. Then it stops. Almost always in the round of 16. This crazy World Cup, jammed into 29 days, is exceptionally short.

Just days after it was celebrated for its youth, the USA paid a heavy price for its naivety, conceding three goals on plays that each could have been drawn up on a schoolyard, and lost to the Netherlands, 3-1, in the round of 16.

The USA's ability to take control of the first halves of the three Group B matches was singled out in tactical analyses of the first round, but that organization only gets it so far. And will almost inevitably succumb to someone with better organization.

The USA's winning goal against Iran was an example of how to pick apart an opposing defense in retreat. The Dutch did that only better with a 22-pass sequence on Memphis Depay's opening goal, cutting the USA's general, Tyler Adams, out of the play.

Every time the USA exits the World Cup, the inevitable question is asked. Has there been progress?

"We didn't qualify for the last World Cup," said U.S. star Christian Pulisic, "and here we got to the last 16. We've definitely come a long way."

There's no argument there.

You could argue the USA's performance in Qatar was far better than it was in Brazil eight years ago when it showed nothing in its last two games, losses to Germany (1-0) and Belgium (2-1).

The players are better, so is the soccer.

The most encouraging part is the team's youth. The USA fielded the youngest team in the tournament for each of its four games. A corps of the team's seven or eight top players will be their prime in 2026 when the USA co-hosts the World Cup. And they will have four more years of experience in Europe's top leagues.

But better is still relative. It doesn't mean close. It doesn't change the fact that the USA is still far behind the top 10 or so soccer nations in the world, depending on the cycle. It lost on Saturday to a team whose coach said it didn't play particularly well.

"We suffered so much as we were dispossessed," Dutch coach Louis van Gaal said of the first half that ended with a 2-0 Oranje lead, "so often early on and that is not acceptable at a World Cup. If you play top-notch countries, it is not acceptable."

Sure, the soccer world is getting smaller. No team was perfect in the group stage of the World Cup for the first time since 1994. Many of the giants or supposed giants lost. Defending champion France to Tunisia. Argentina to Saudi Arabia. Brazil to Cameroon. Spain and Germany to Japan. Belgium to Morocco.

In the aftermath of the USA's exit to the Dutch, it was easy to find excuses:

• Pulisic should have scored on his chance in the 3rd minute.
• Berhalter should have gone with Gio Reyna at center forward from the get-go.

"We talked about the game being about moments and the first half was a great indication of that," said Berhalter. "And two moments come and all of a sudden we're down 2-0."

Sure, a case could be made the Dutch won because they finished their chances and the USA didn't.

"When you look at the difference of the two teams, there was some offensive finishing quality that Holland had that we were lacking," Berhalter said. "It's normal. We have a very young group that is beginning their careers. We'll catch up to that."

Probably the most frustrating thing about the USA's return to the World Cup is that it's been going to the finals for decades now and almost inevitably the overwhelming sense is that when it exited it felt like a case of men against boys.

17 comments about "USA exits World Cup to a familiar feeling, a case of men against boys".
  1. Bob Ashpole, December 3, 2022 at 7:39 p.m.

    I find it very difficult to say anything negative about the US players. I think we all saw the team that should have been playing together the entire cycle.

    Saving the best side for last is not how you build a winning team. I will assume that GB didn't call players earlier during the cycle because they were unavailable for whatever reasons.

    Thank you GB for your service, but now is the time to rebuild the coaching staff and management structure. The business managers have way too much control over the soccer, and they use it to block change. On both women's and men's teams.

    To attract the best coaches, USSF needs to stop micro-managing the soccer. Hiring a great coach and then telling him how to run the team is doomed to fail. Saying that foreign coaches don't understand American players misses the point. It is the game that they need to understand. If there is a language barrier, that is what interpreters are for.

  2. Ben Myers replied, December 3, 2022 at 10:40 p.m.

    I agree wholeheartedly that Berhalter's strategic error was "Saving the best side for last is not how you build a winning team."  He called in Ream out of desperation, ignoring him rather than giving him the playing time in the runup to the World Cup.  Ditto Carter-Vickers who only starts at center defense for Celtic and played a lot in the Champions League, and who acquitted himself well in the second match despite little playing time during the CONCACAF cycle. Haji Wright plays short minutes and scores a goal, again despite little playing time.

    Berhalter was forced to overcome his MLS bias and go with players playing abroad, but it took the World Cup itself to do it.  Almost.  He used Zimmerman, Ferreira, Acosta and Morris from MLS during the tournament.  Let's give a pass to Yedlin and Shaq Moore, who played overseas until recently.

    Berhalter went into this four years ago seeming pretty clueless about Americans playing in Europe and this biased his decision making throughout.  Yes, there were injured players.  There always are.  Every national team deal with them.  Injuries are no excuse. 

  3. R2 Dad, December 3, 2022 at 8:51 p.m.

    I recall that after the group stage, most of the talking heads were asking for 4 more years of GB. Do they still feel the same way now?

  4. Kent James, December 3, 2022 at 9:40 p.m.

    The USMNT should have Van Gaal's comment taped to their locker room for the next 4 years: ""We suffered so much as we were dispossessed, so often early on and that is not acceptable at a World Cup. If you play top-notch countries, it is not acceptable."

    Rather than credit the US for dispossessing them, he criticizes us for not punishing them.  Fair enough.  We will make sure we do that next time.  I don't think the gap is quite as large as the "men and boys" analogy would suggest.

  5. George Vecsey, December 3, 2022 at 10:07 p.m.

    Paul, very good analysis. We all know the urge to be kind, to see the positives, but you wrote what I was
    probably thinking behind the kindness. GV

  6. cony konstin, December 4, 2022 at 8:27 a.m.

    I am sad to see the US team out of the World Cup but we need a soccer revolution in USA for both our men and women. We radical change. We need new leadership. We need a new vision. We need a 21st century master plan.

  7. Philip Carragher replied, December 4, 2022 at 11:58 a.m.

    If we can't find a way to coach our youth players better, (thus deliver more quality to the national team coach), remove the coaches by emphasizing futsal with elements of street soccer (that means no cost). Let the game teach the players and they'll have more fun as well and even low income families can participate in the system. And if we can't get them better coaching, and reject the futsal/street soccer idea, give up our quest for world soccer domination and emphasize using soccer and our school systems to develop better young men and women. We need to make up our minds about this latter point.

  8. Anthony Petgrave, December 4, 2022 at 12:53 p.m.

    ...the games, the tournament itself, showed how far behind WE were on the pitch, and more importantly,  the sidelines, compared with the football elites.

    The "let soccer people run soccer" in this country will continue to be run poorly,  because they are no more than a poor example of, dare I say...Chuck Blaser, GOD rest his soul.

    It not about the game, but their ability to draw resources from their continued control there of. WE "succeed" as a football playing nation despite their hegimony, IMHO.

  9. Alan Blackledge, December 4, 2022 at 1:32 p.m.

    Fun to listen to all the "experts" one seriously believed this team was going to go much further than it did...we had to scratch & claw to ALMOST ALWAYS! We don't have the depth& it clearly showed in that last game. That's what the World Cup is about, attrition. It's not just the "starters" but also your depth. We don't yet have that...key players made key mistakes that they didn't make in the earlier games due to mental & body fatigue. GB had them playing an attractive style that they couldn't maintain over 3 games in such a short time period. The Dutch group barely tested them, we had to work hard to get anything positive. GB deserves credit not scorn. Big bucks foreign coaches have never delivered for the US, and a number went home early or didn't qualify for this World Cup...

  10. Tim Schum, December 4, 2022 at 1:49 p.m.

    One lingering residue from Qatar was the USMNT utilization of Gio Reyna.

    We were informed that a lingering hamstring was the cause of his brief appearance in pool play through those familiar with the injury would ask: Why use him at all if it was putting him at risk?

    By the Netherlands match it was obvious that the #9 position was still unsettled. While Sargent gave promise vs. Iran, he was unavailable due to injury. Wright, while imposing physically and scoring in Turkey, did not show well vs. Iran.

    So Ferreira, having not played until yesterday, was inserted.

    What is baffling is that now down 0-2, GR is now inserted at midfield. IF he was truly available, why then? Why not have inserted him at the start of the match when it was win or go home? And why not at the #9 position which demands an ability to hold the ball in tight spaces and find those spaces as well? He is a soccer player with those attributes and what was called for at the start of the match was a calmness, a presence. We talk young, but GR plays "old" as has been recognized at Dortmond.

    In fairnes to Gregg Berhalter, he demonstrated an integrity to his #9 players he brought to Qatar. He gave them all a chance with only Sargent perhaps deserving a further look.

    But the WC is not soccer intramurals, it is not junior varsity competition. You are there not to be loyal to your players but to WIN. A coach has to innovative and recognize those qualities in a player and where they can be best utilized within the team framework. 

    For me, if GR was avaiable he should have been on the field at the onset of the match not brought in down 0-2. IF GB wanted to play Ferreira and IF later in the match an opportunity presented itself, fine.

    Everyone should be wary of second-guessing a coach. Unless one has been part of the innerworkings of a group, you never can appreciate coaching decisions.

    But it seems that, if Gio Reyna, one of our best and most reliable players, was avaialbe, he was under utilized yesterday.  


  11. Alan Blackledge replied, December 4, 2022 at 2:38 p.m.

    Geo is not a consistent goal scorer for club or country. It is curious why his play was so I believe there was more than we've been told going on...
    Amazing that people don't give credit to really out playing England and their coach...

  12. Bob Ashpole, December 4, 2022 at 3:35 p.m.

    IMO the gap is in the coaching, not just the senior team but our player development is designed to make profits, not develop players. So I am clear, the current emphasis is on developing winning youth teams which serves no purpose for the sport.

  13. TJ Kostecky, December 4, 2022 at 11:20 p.m.

    First off I wholeheartedly agree with ALL of your comments. It's great to see knowledgeable folks sharing wise observations in this space.

    Tim, I agree about GR. He should have been inserted earlier. His ability to keep the ball in tight spaces, his vision and decision making would have enhanced our ability to probe in the attack and would have made a big difference in our performance.
    IMO we'll be able to consistently compete and beat the best in the world 

    once we learn how to problem to probe in the attacking half...and to play in various rhythms. This is predicated on early and frequent scanning, better and more clever spacing and intelligent movement off the ball. And as a result will enhance our speed of play, open up and increase opportunities for us to score goals.

  14. Chris Lemley, December 4, 2022 at 11:33 p.m.

    I saw that game differently. For the first time ever at a World Cup against a European power, I thought that for the most part the US was the better team. We had three significant defensive lapses. The gap isn't large enough for the men / boys analogy. Aside from our youth, it was encouraging how we played against both the Dutch and England - we didn't just sit back and defend, we took the game to them. We deserved better than a draw against England. All of those feeling are new for USMNT fans. So even amidst the frustration, it is a very different sentiment as we look to 2026. Whether Berhalter stays or goes - and I was frustrated by his refusal to play his best XI as anyone, when our best 9 might be our 16th or 17th best player - he has absolutely created a much better foundation than he inherited.

  15. Hal Barnes, December 5, 2022 at 12:32 a.m.

    Most of these comments are BS. The US needs world class strikers. That's all. 

  16. frank schoon, December 5, 2022 at 10:06 a.m.

    How naive some  think that we looked decent, even pretty good against Holland. The dutch tactically allowed them. In other words, they allowed the US have the ball while the dutch sat back in front of their own goal waiting for a counter attack.

    As stated by the dutch they know the Americans  love to run, they are full of Turbo, with little use of thinking. It was the rope a dope ,so to speak. In they allowed the Americans to spend lots of energy ,while the dutch hung back, which is unnatural to their way of playing.
    Apparently many US watchers interpret the American display with the best and it showed...No it doesn't show anything if you understand the game.

    Because the Dutch played a style that runs counter to their natural style which is attacking, not counterattacking by sitting back, some of the dutch players, like Frenkie de Jong, Klaasens , Memphis, Blind felt out of place and out of sync. This is why van Basten and other dutch greats stated that the dutch sucked, although the dutch did minimally what was necessary to win seen by the goals they scored....

    Many dutch fans ,coaches and players are not happy with the way the dutch played. To think the US looked good against the dutch is not the case for the dutch allowed the US the space and time with the ball....

  17. Bill Riviere, December 8, 2022 at 6:29 p.m.

    Frank, You are spot on re US vs Dutch.  We were suckered into playing the way they wanted us to.

    And then we can't track goal scorers for whatever reason.

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