AL RAYYAN, Qatar – Every four years, when the United States men’s national team is eliminated from a World Cup – at least the ones for which it qualifies – the refrain is predictable: “We have proven that we belong “, or some variation thereof. .
Except this time, it rang truer than in the past. Over four games in Qatar, the United States took on their opponents, pressed them effectively and defended vigorously. To do so with the second youngest team in the tournament also bodes well.
So, with the Netherlands beating the United States 3-1 in a World Cup Round of 16 game, a slightly different flavor of the same sentiment could be heard. As USA manager Gregg Berhalter said: “We set ourselves the goal of showing the rest of the world how we can play football. I think we’ve partially achieved that, although we haven’t reached our Goals.”
The United States failed because of, well, a lack of goals. And that was ultimately the difference between the two teams on Saturday.
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“They were clinical in their [scoring] first half opportunities,” Berhalter said of the Dutch. “Other than that, there wasn’t much that separated the teams.” But you can drop that last comment under, “One inch equals a mile away.”
While there has been progress in some areas, there is one where the Americans still have a long way to catch up. The name of the game – and the hardest part of the game – is scoring goals, and despite all of USA’s impressive play in this World Cup, the Americans have only found the back of the net three times in four games. In terms of expected goals per game, the United States were in the bottom half of teams that reached the knockout stages (tied for 12th), as well as the tournament as a whole (23 out of 32.)
So despite all the talk about this being the most talented team in the history of the U.S. men’s program, there’s one area where you could say that, say, the 2010 team was better — at least compared to the competition: the team had scorers and this one has none. Sure, that 2010 side didn’t get enough goals from forwards in this World Cup, but the goalscorers can be positioned elsewhere on the pitch. In Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, this team had two scorers that gave America hope of winning against anyone.
In this current American team, the reason for such a belief has yet to emerge with enough consistency to really take the Americans to the next level, where they can truly threaten to beat the best teams enough times to go further when of a World Cup.
Against the Dutch there were chances. Christian Pulisic’s third-minute attempt when he was taken off by Tyler Adams – only to have his shot saved by Dutch goalkeeper Andries Noppert – is one he regrets.
“It hurts, man. It hurts,” Pulisic said of the miss. “I thought I was way offside when it happened, but I hit him anyway, and he made a good save. It’s going to hurt for a while.”
Solving the US Rating Issue
Berhalter acknowledged the difference in quality – and experience – when it came to finishing chances, particularly as a striker. “We don’t have Memphis Depay at the moment, who has been scoring Champions League goals, playing at Barcelona and being an international for years and years,” he said.
USA also don’t have Denzel Dumfries or Daley Blind delivering accurate passes into the box. For USA too often in this tournament, the final ball in the box was not good enough. It wasn’t just about the forwards and poor finishing, but also about not creating enough high-quality chances.
Despite all the talk of expected goals in this match, where the Netherlands (1.67 xG) barely had the advantage over the USA (1.49 xG), there were only three big chances for the United States where the xG was greater than 0.19. One of them, Haji Wright’s goal has to be considered a fluke, coming as he did on a deviation from his heel which he seemed little aware of. USA’s other chances were low percentage shots.
Granted, it’s the World Cup and the goals are hard to come by, but USA just need to improve by creating quality chances and finishing the chances they get. With the next World Cup taking place in the United States, Canada and Mexico in 2026, the Americans have four years to fix this problem.
In terms of wing play, the United States have talent in this part of the field, of course, with Pulisic, Timothy Weah, Brenden Aaronson and Giovanni Reyna. Outside backs like Sergino Dest and Antonee Robinson, who had stellar tournaments leading up to the game against the Netherlands, are also factored into this equation. And over the next four years, they will have to continue the growth they have shown in this cycle – they cannot afford to tread water if the US is to progress, and there is every reason for optimism. as to whether they will rely on this tournament. However, there is no guarantee.
Yet a consistent centre-forward remains the elusive unicorn of this team. Ricardo Pepi or Jordan Pefok would they have done better during this World Cup? It’s hard to imagine them worse than Wright and Jesus Ferreira, and it’s a decision Berhalter will have to live with. But the search continues.
Pepi, just 19, thinks he has a much better chance in the next cycle, although it remains to be seen how many competitive matches lie ahead for the United States given the likelihood that as hosts the USA automatically qualify for the 2026 World Cup. So will Josh Sargent, still just 22, who was solid but unable to find the net at this World Cup.
Other candidates will no doubt emerge to challenge those already there – or so the United States should hope. The ideal scenario is for the competitive environment within the national team and player clubs to elevate the collective level of the US team. Fixing USA’s lack of goals may take time, but it must be a priority.
Otherwise, when it comes to the World Cups, the United States will once again find themselves talking about how they clung to the big guys instead of beating them.