The USMNT did well to survive group play and advance to the knockout stage of the World Cup. It’s been a suspenseful and exhilarating run, fraught with anxiety. But draws against Wales and England and the dramatic 1-0 victory over Iran have put the U.S. in the clear, and into the round of 16 for Saturday’s match vs. Netherlands.
Watching the World Cup competition has been immense fun, especially since the U.S. failed to qualify for the 2018 WC. That absence makes this experience more enjoyable – even if a percentage of USMNT fans seem to draw even more pleasure from going into various social-media hives to attack and ridicule most of the decisions made by U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter. And here I was thinking that the obsessed fetishists of former Cardinals batting coach Jeff Albert were unhinged crazies.
I’m mostly kidding here, so relax. It’s fun to second-guess Berhalter’s substitutions and tactics, and so the yelps on Twitter make sense to a point. But pardon my positivity here; I think the U.S. program is in very good shape with its young, more skilled and deeply athletic roster that is set up for future success – like the 2026 World Cup.
The 11 players the USMNT started in its critical, must-win World Cup triumph over Iran was the youngest lineup for the USA in more than 30 years. If inexperience on the World Cup stage is such a minus, the U.S. is doing an excellent job of booting the narrative.
As for Berhalter, The Sporting News points to his record.
“Berhalter has a record of 26 wins, 5 losses and 10 draws since the start of this decade, which means he has earned a (positive) result from 88 percent of games,’’ my friend Mike DeCourcy wrote. “Against opponents who qualified for the 2022 World Cup, including the three games played to date in the tournament, the record is 10 wins, 4 losses and 7 draws for an 81 percent success rate. And against Mexico, the program’s enduring rival, the U.S. is 3-0-1 since 2020.”
Progress doesn’t have to be perfection. The U.S. program is in the process of rising to a higher level, having emerged from a difficult group that contained FIFA’s fifth-ranked team (England), 19th-ranked team (Wales) and 20th-ranked side (Iran.) The U.S. is 16th.
Having success in a group that had four top–20 programs is something to applaud. Even better: the U.S. played three World Cup opponents ranked in the FIFA top 20 without allowing a single goal in open play. and none was able to score a goal in open play. England has scored nine goals in three World Cup games so far – but didn’t score against the U.S.
“It was a really tough opponent,” England coach Gareth Southgate said in the media session after the 0-0 draw with the U.S. “They defended incredibly well. Their front six make it so difficult to play through and get at their defense. The angles that the USA team press with is unbelievably difficult.”
Also impressive is the sight of so many U.S. players roaming the football fields of Europe in 2022. Seventeen of the 26 USMNT members are playing for teams in Europe. And more U.S. next-generation kids are in development. This bodes well for the nation’s fortunes going forward.
The next step, of course, is finding a way to defeat the Dutch on Saturday morning (9 a.m. STL time.) The United States has only advanced past the round of 16 in the World Cup twice in its modest soccer history – and only one time since 1930. That was back in 2002 when St. Louis U soccer alum Brian McBride scored a goal in the 2-0 upending of Mexico in the knockout round of 16.
The Netherlands are justifiably installed as the betting favorite over the Americans. But the Dutch performed sluggishly in group-play matches against Senegal, Ecuador and Qatar and will face the Americans with a roster that could be at less than full vigor after an outbreak of the flu.
Beware of Cody Gakpo, the attacker, who became only the fourth player in Netherlands World Cup history to score in all three group matches. The general consensus out there? It seems to be this: the Dutch are the more prestigious side, but they are underperforming, and the U.S. are confident and dangerous.
The Americans obviously have a problem with their finishing, setting up creative excursions into the final third of the field before bumbling away scoring chances.
At least Christian Pulisic is cleared to play Saturday. He famously suffered a pelvic injury while scoring the winning goal vs. Iraq. Assuming that “Captain America” is at full throttle, the U.S. will have their master facilitator in place to crack the Dutch defense.
But as ESPN pointed out: “The Dutch have Gakpo, and the US don’t have anyone, really, who has shown — and not just at this World Cup, but going back months — an ability to consistently finish difficult chances.”
True. And we’re all wondering who Berhalter will choose to start at the No. 9 position Saturday. Will this be the rollout for Gio Reyna? We’ll see. But the U.S. is moving in the right direction. Asking the Yanks to move past the Netherlands is quite a request, but a positive outcome is plausible.
Win or lose Saturday, the U.S. is making serious headway.
“If our players continue to progress at the rate that they have been, we’re going to be dealing with a really, really talented player pool with experience and having home field advantage,” Berhalter told The Athletic. “And we know the home field in the World Cup is important. I think it’s a great opportunity for us, without getting ahead of ourselves. I think everything that’s been done has been laying the foundation (for 2026), and this World Cup will help do that as well.”
But now that the U.S. has secured a place among the final 16 World Cup contenders, they might as well keep rolling. Making it to the quarterfinals begins with having the unreserved confidence and boldness and the belief that you can win Saturday and advance to those quarterfinals. Turn a dream into the next destination.
Thanks for reading and have a wonderful weekend.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.