DOHA, Qatar — The young U.S. men were unflappable at the World Cup. Until they weren’t.
After showing composure well beyond their years throughout the group stage, including a clampdown on mighty England, the Americans had a series of uncharacteristic miscues Saturday that doomed any chance they had of reaching the quarterfinals for the first time in 20 years. A defense that had been so solid fell apart three times, and the Netherlands made them pay each time.
Memphis Depay might as well have been on a runway for as clear a path as the USMNT gave him on the first Dutch goal, in the 10thminute of the game. Nobody picked up on a streaking Daley Blind until the ball was in the net just before halftime.
And, most egregious of all, minutes after the USMNT had pulled a goal back to make a game of it again, Denzel Dumfries found himself so open at the back post he was actually calling for the ball for several seconds. When he got it, he unleashed a rocket that extinguished any last hope the Americans had.
“When it’s not that night, it’s not that night,” Weston McKennie said after the 3-1 loss. “We all know we did very good defensively in the group stage. Obviously, the Netherlands has a lot of attacking threats and individual quality. They got two similar goals. It is what it is.”
There is no shame in losing to a team like the Dutch. This might not be as formidable a squad as the one that played for the World Cup title in 2010. Or the one that reached the semifinals four years later. It is still a talented and, more importantly, experienced squad, however, one that is unbeaten in the 18 games since Louis van Gaal returned as coach in August 2021.
But the USMNT players had said, and showed against England, that they believed they could play with anyone in the world, and they simply weren’t up to the task against the Netherlands.
The USMNT had succeeded in the group stage by closing down spaces and getting to balls before the opponent had time to let anything build. That wasn’t the case against the Netherlands. The Americans were never quite where they needed to be, a half-second too late or a step too slow.
“It’s just moments that a player’s off here and there, and it ends up in the back of the net,” coach Gregg Berhalter said. “When you play at this level, play this high quality, that’s what happens. Unfortunately it happened in a knockout game, but it did and we’ve got to learn from it.”
The Americans won’t say it, but the group-stage games – especially the frenetic finish against Iran when they had to withstand a barrage for 10 minutes of stoppage time – appeared to take a toll. Tyler Adams, who put the Energizer Bunny to shame in the group stage, lost Depay after he’d sprayed the ball wide to Dumfries and Sergino Dest didn’t pick him up, allowing Depay to run unmarked to the box.
Whether it was physical or mental fatigue, or simply showing their age, the Americans weren’t as sharp as they’d been their first three games. Weren’t as sharp as they needed to be at this stage of a World Cup.
“We didn’t track runners well all night,” goalkeeper Matt Turner said. “It felt like every time they crossed the ball, they got a head on it, they got a piece on it. … I don’t think it was anything other than the fact they attacked us very well and they have some great players that were able to finish their chances.”
You can play the woulda, coulda, shoulda game, wondering how different the outcome would have been had Christian Pulisic scored on a gimme in the third minute. But he didn’t. And when the Netherlands scored seven minutes later, the Dutch could afford to sit back and let the Americans chase the game.
It’s a credit to the USMNT that they didn’t give up after Blind’s goal just before halftime. They kept pressing and created several chances in the second half before Pulisic’s cross hit Haji Wright’s leg and bounced into the net in the 76th.
“They’re really tough,” Dutch goalkeeper Andries Noppert said. “They go like crazy, like hell. They’re working together, they don’t give up.”
But the Americans melted down once again, giving up Dumfries’ goal in the 81st.
“You look at, can we win against top teams? Can we perform well enough against top teams, well enough to win?” Berhalter asked. “I think this group is close.”
Close isn't enough at this level, however. Maybe someday the USMNT can play a flawed game and win, but they're not there yet.
And it showed against the Dutch.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Americans show their age, inexperience against the Netherlands