US achieved a lot in Qatar, but left everyone wanting more

AL RAYYAN, Qatar — Gregg Berhalter and his assistant coaches weren’t sure what to say. Halftime was Saturday night. The United States men’s national team was two goals behind the Netherlands. Their tournament life was shaky but the US players had dominated the first 45 minutes so much, playing the way they wanted, battling very hard with a favorite Dutch side even when they lost.

What could Berhalter say to his players? Finally he entered the room.

“Football can be cruel sometimes,” he said.

It’s the truth, especially on this level. It often feels silly to attach so much importance to a World Cup. Four games? Even in the NFL, it’s a fragment. And yet, in international football, it is everything.

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This group of US players captivated their country throughout these four games. They pushed football into the public consciousness where it rarely goes in those four games. They made an impact in those four games, and in the best possible way: with energy and dedication and talent and a precocity that made even the most casual of fans feel like magic could happen.

This US team wasn’t just a bunch of athletes who could run fast and kick the ball hard. That was no coincidence. The US program has evolved, as have its fans. Everyone knows that Netherlands 3, USA 1 was not a defeat.

But everyone also knows that losing out in the round of 16 is far from enough. No longer.

“We started with the goal of showing the rest of the world how we can play football,” said Berhalter afterwards. “I think we partially succeeded in that, even if we fell short of our goals.”

Berhalter didn’t want to say what those goals were. Neither do the players, not loudly. Still, everyone knew that as encouraging as the first half against the Netherlands might have been, as excited as everyone was after drawing against England or beating Iran, it was still a ride that felt like becoming a station come up short.

Does the USA deserve a Quarterfinals? They didn’t. The Dutch were clinical in their degree and the Americans were not. But there’s also no denying that USA have shown on more than one occasion that they have the players to make it into the last eight in a tournament like this.

You have the ability to be dangerous against anyone.

“I think it’s probably the first time in a long time that people are saying, ‘There’s something special about this team,'” said captain Tyler Adams. “Potential is just potential, but you see, if we maximize it properly, there could be something there.”

There are obvious holes. This tournament showed just how much America lacks a forward, someone who can step up to a golden opportunity and turn the game upside down.

As Berhalter himself admitted, “We don’t currently have a Memphis Depay.”

However, they have guns. They have a midfield going forward, with Yunus Musah and Weston McKennie coming at their best. They have wingers, with Christian Pulisic and Timothy Weah showing just how much damage they can do. They have a leader in Adams who is everything you could ask for in a captain. They have depth and class that one has to wonder how much Giovanni Reyna or Brenden Aaronson would have changed things for USA had they played more than the bench.

A young team like this will always make mistakes and on Saturday the USA paid the price every time. Pulisic, who scored the winner against Iran, missed a close-range chance that could have set the tone just two minutes later. Adams, who was perhaps the best American on the field in the first three games, had a flaw in his thinking and didn’t follow Memphis to the box, so he had a perfect eye on the first Dutch goal. Sergino Dest, so outstanding against the Iranians, switched off and lost second place just before half-time.

“Everything that could have gone wrong in this game did go wrong,” said goalkeeper Matt Turner.

The thing is, those moments were the exception. The US was hardly perfect, but they prevailed. They had more shots, more shots on target, more passes (by a wide margin). Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal described his side’s performance in the first half as “unacceptable”. Berhalter said the US would “dominate,” and that wasn’t very far-fetched.

Some will point to this and call it progress for the US. To be able to make a European power like England uncomfortable, as the Americans did in the group stage, and to have the chances they had here in the last 16 against the Netherlands is no small feat.

But this is a team with bigger ambitions and a fan base that wants the same. Whether it’s Berhalter or someone else moving them forward, the expectations must be more than the kind of progress that feels so unsatisfying.

Ultimately, that stabbing, stabbing dagger of unfulfillment is what remains. This tournament was certainly something special for the USA: the exhilarating rise, the feeling of being here and at home. The way these players were able to live out their childhood dreams together.

They ran. they hunted. They pushed and pushed and pushed. They fought together. They danced together. They worked together to bring anyone who overlooked or ignored them to their attention.

In four games, these players have achieved a lot. But in four games they’ve also done just enough to make everyone think there should have been more. US achieved a lot in Qatar, but left everyone wanting more

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