The U.S. national team started play in the World Cup two weeks ago with two objectives.
“We came into this World Cup with the goal of winning it,” defender Walker Zimmerman said.
OK, that one was probably a bit unrealistic.
But the second goal was arguably the more important one, especially with the World Cup returning to the U.S. in four years. And that one, the players argued, they achieved.
“We had a common goal four years ago, a mission that we set out on, which was to change the way the world views American soccer,” midfielder Weston McKennie said. “I think this tournament has really restored a lot of belief, restored a lot of respect. I think we've shown that, you know, we can be giants.
“We may not be there yet. But I think we definitely are on our way.”
“They have a great level of talent and bring a lot of energy to the match. They can look forward to a great future. They can certainly grow into an elite team.”
Netherlands defender Denzel Dumfries on the U.S.
In that way this World Cup was a big step forward even if it ended the same way every other World Cup has ended for the U.S., with a loss — this one a 3-1 decision to the Netherlands in the round of 16. But it also ended with the players looking forward, not back; this time the final game was a beginning, not an end.
“We set out to show the rest of the world that we can play soccer,” coach Gregg Berhalter said. “I think we partially achieved that. We've made progress. I feel like when you look at our team, it's a very clear identity of what we're trying to do.
“Can we win against top teams? Can we perform well against top teams well enough to win? I think this group is close. The American public should be optimistic.”
Perhaps the biggest change has been within the team itself. For a program that has made it to the quarterfinals only once in the modern era, the round of 16 was always the aim. Just get out of the group and anything after that is gravy.
That mindset is gone.
“That part’s changing,” said goalkeeper Matt Turner, who had an outstanding tournament, becoming the first American in 92 years to post two shutouts in a World Cup. “The expectation of our fans is changing, the expectation of the players. We’re not feeling like we want a trophy just because we move to the round of 16.
“We want to be able to compete with these teams, like the Netherlands, like Argentina. We want to be able to play those games, play those big moments and create more buzz.”
The loss to the Netherlands, ranked No. 8 in the world, showed the U.S. isn’t there yet. Louis van Gaal, unbeaten in 11 World Cup games as the Dutch coach, found a weakness in the U.S. defense and exploited it, asking his wingers to wait an extra beat or two before delivering their crosses into the box. And that little bit of patience made a huge difference. Although the Netherlands conceded possession, it made the most of its chances, with Inter Milan winger Denzel Dumfries finishing with a goal and two assists to become the first Dutch player since 1978 to contribute to three scores in a World Cup game.
Still, it was not necessarily a game the Netherlands would want to play again.
“They’re really tough,” Dutch goalkeeper Andries Noppert, who was called on to make five saves, said of the Americans. “They go like crazy, like hell. They work together, they don’t give up.”
“They have a great level of talent and bring a lot of energy to the match,” added Dumfries. “They can look forward to a great future. They can certainly grow into an elite team.”
They can — but they’re not there yet.
One win, two draws and a loss isn’t a great World Cup, but it is a start. It’s also better than Mexico, Uruguay, Belgium and Germany did here.
The performance was also illuminating because for all the talent and energy and youth on the U.S. squad, that can’t make up the lack of consistent goal scorer. The U.S. scored only three goals in this tournament, and they all came from different players — though Christian Pulisic scored one and assisted on the other two.
The U.S. had the second-youngest team in the tournament and Saturday it showed its age. The MMA midfield of McKennie, 24, Yunus Musah, 20, and Tyler Adams, 23, so good in the group stage, was middling against the Dutch. The back line, so strong in the first three games when it did not give up a goal from the run of play, made two big mistakes Saturday and gave up three scores.
Turner was perhaps the one American who started strong and finished stronger, his four saves keeping a one-sided game from becoming even more of a blowout. But despite the loss, there is a buzz around this team.
“I think it's probably the first time in a long time when people will say, ‘Wow, this team has something special,’ ” Adams said. “There's so many ups and downs in the past three years and then when you put four performances like that out on the field, it really gives people something to be excited about.
“Potential is just potential, but you can see that if we maximize it in the right way that it can be something.”
The next World Cup is in the U.S. and the home team will be four years older — and one big tournament wiser. By then, McKennie said, winning on the final day won’t seem so unrealistic.
“We went out and it sucks,” he said. “But at the same time, a lot of us will use this as a chip on our shoulder over the next four years to try and prove what we can do.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.