America, the Naive

In Saturday’s World Cup–eliminating defeat, the U.S. men’s team revealed its shortcomings against the old-world sophistication of the Netherlands.

Weston McKennie moves the ball in the U.S. team's match against the Netherlands
Weston McKennie moves the ball in the U.S. team's match against the Netherlands (John Dorton / ISI Photos / Getty)

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One of Gregg Berhalter’s charms is that he can’t be bothered. Unshaven, attired in the uniform of Team Schlub, he loped along the sideline as if it were still the height of the pandemic and he was enjoying his newfound freedom from showering.

Standing in the technical area opposite him was the Dutch coach, Louis van Gaal, looking very much like an uptight high-school principal eager to reprimand Berhalter for his aggressive indifference. Van Gaal is one of the most experienced and meticulous coaches in the game, wise to the ways of tournament soccer and a shrewd pragmatist.

As a young man, Berhalter played soccer in Holland, and he has molded his team to classic principles of Dutch soccer—where dominance comes in the form of short passing and players arraying themselves in tidy triangles. For decades, the United States lacked an identity, and Berhalter has imposed one on the team. He’s picked an attractive, aggressive style, which suits the youth and athleticism of his rosters. It’s an aesthetic that has made the U.S. irresistibly likable, even to the eyes of neutrals who have historically sneered at American soccer.

Confronting one of the greatest soccer-playing nations on the planet, Berhalter stuck to his principles. He did nothing to bend to his opponent. And for the first 10 minutes of the game, it was exhilarating. The United States attacked without fear, and it supplied the match’s hinge moment, when Christian Pulisic scuffed a shot that the goalkeeper Andries Noppert buried in his arms. What if … what if … what if …

Where the United States made no concessions to the Dutch, Louis van Gaal understood how a few tweaks in his team could neutralize his opponent and exploit its weaknesses. All tournament long, the America midfield had been a whirling display of energy and ingenuity. But by tightly marking Yunus Musah, Tyler Adams, and Weston McKennie, the Dutch rendered the American attack inert.

Van Gaal also saw how the fullback Antonee Robinson would bombard up the field without sufficient attention to the space he vacated. In the past, Robinson’s pace had allowed him to compensate for the moments he found himself marooned in the wrong part of the pitch. But today, the Dutch brutally picked on him. On each of the three goals, the Dutch ruthlessly exploited Robinson’s tactical indiscipline. Because the dynamic was so apparent to the viewer at home, it became painful to watch. And in the end, the Dutch scored classic team goals, swinging the ball from wingback to wingback, elegantly leaving it for runners arriving late in the box.

This iteration of the U.S. men’s team was indeed its most gifted. Many of the components for a team that can go deep in a World Cup are in place—and young players will measurably mature. But the leap in collective quality also revealed the areas where the United States has failed to nurture talent of the caliber to compete with the likes of the Netherlands. For some mysterious reason, the United States hasn’t been able to produce a world-class striker. (My humble suggestion: Recruit this guy.) Our central defenders are lovably gritty, but not quite fast enough to keep up. American success in the 2026 World Cup will hinge on whether talent emerges in those positions.

It will also hinge on the tactical evolution of Gregg Berhalter. It’s always fun when a nation’s soccer style channels clichés about the country’s essential identity. (For example: Holland, the nation of Mondrian, landscape painting, and canals, are masters at rearranging space.) The rap on the United States is that its exuberant faith in its own values makes it hopelessly naive, dangerously idealistic. That’s how the team played today. To take its next step forward, it will have to add a touch of old-world sophistication and realism to its approach, the maturity that comes from being dented and battered.