Some within the US men’s national team are surely just relieved to be in the last 16 of the 2022 World Cup. Such was the negativity around the USA entering the tournament in Qatar, anything beyond a group stage exit was considered a success in some quarters. Now, though, Gregg Berhalter and his players have the Netherlands in their sights.
On pedigree and individual talent, the Netherlands will be favourites to win Saturday’s round of 16 match. However, it could be argued that the tactical match-up will be kinder to the USA than was the case in the Group B fixtures. Breaking down low defensive blocks against Wales and Iran was no easy task.
The Dutch have struggled to find the right formula at the 2022 World Cup. They might have topped Group A with two wins and a draw from three fixtures, but Louis van Gaal has faced criticism over his style of play, with the former Manchester United boss hitting back at suggestions his team are boring to watch.
It’s not just that the Netherlands are dull. They have lacked control in matches at the 2022 World Cup, reflected in van Gaal’s indecision with his team selections – he has changed his midfield for every match at the tournament so far. This is certainly an area of the pitch where the USA can impose themselves, with central midfielders Yunus Musah, Weston McKennie, and Tyler Adams collectively playing some of the best soccer at the tournament in the center of the field.
The USA can also hurt the Netherlands in the wide areas. Denzel Dumfries will be a threat down the right wing, but Antonee Robinson will counter that by getting forward himself. On the right wing, Sergiño Dest will be directly up against Daley Blind, who could struggle to contain the AC Milan full-back. After an impressive performance against Iran which saw Dest produce the assist for the USA’s lone goal, he’ll surely be riding high heading into a showdown against his country of birth.
Of course, Cody Gakpo will be a serious threat to the USA defence. The PSV Eindhoven attacker has been one of the stars of the 2022 World Cup so far, having scored three goals in three games. The USA must make sure there is no space in between the lines for Gakpo to exploit – that’s where he is most dangerous.
Frenkie de Jong has also performed well at the 2022 World Cup. The Barcelona midfielder has been asked to do a lot of the heavy lifting in the centre of the pitch, and the danger for the USA is his ability to break lines with his dribbling, which could leave them exposed.
The US can’t afford de Jong space to operate in – a job that the MMA midfield could well be up to task for. Adams, the USMNT captain, has enjoyed a break-out tournament in particular, catching the eyes of the world for his work rate, intelligence, ability to snuff out attacks in the middle third as well as kickstart his team’s counter.
And the transition will be key to the USA’s game plan. There have been signs of good work on the break at the 2022 World Cup – see the opening goal against Wales – but the USA will need to be even sharper to unsettle and disrupt the back three likely to be deployed by the Netherlands on Saturday.
There is a sense that anything beyond a Round of 16 appearance would be a bonus for the USA given the low expectations before the start of the World Cup, but Berhalter wants his team to set a new precedent for the sport in the country. That means a deep run should be the target now that the USA is out of the group.
“I’m really proud of this group, especially towards the end [of the match],” Berhalter told his team in the dressing room after the nervy 1-0 win over Iran. “When we worked, and it wasn’t going our way, we had to dig, we had to fight for everything and that’s when you guys stepped up. Really good effort.
They worked, they were desperate and we held firm. We wanted to enjoy this, but we’re not done. That’s the mentality we need to have. Not that we’re happy to be here. We have to flip the switch and get into competitive mode. [In the] knockout anything can happen. It’s about survival now, and I’ll take you guys all day.”
If the Netherlands play their best game, they will progress to the quarter-finals. If, however, the USA can prevent them from finding their stride, there is a good chance this match-up will suit them. If this is truly a ‘golden generation,’ as they have been labelled, the USA will produce a golden moment at the 2022 World Cup on Saturday.