RAYYAN, Qatar — Gregg Berhalter and the U.S. men’s national soccer team arrived at the World Cup preparing for two tournaments. They successfully navigated the first one (a three-game rumble culminating with a harrowing victory over Iran on Tuesday) and now will enter the no-mercy phase with a round-of-16 showdown against the Netherlands on Saturday.
“From here, anything can happen,” Berhalter said. “It’s a great opportunity, but it’s not something that we’re going into it thinking it’s an honor. We deserve to be in the position we’re in and we want to keep going.”
Fielding the youngest starting lineups in the 32-team competition and featuring one player with World Cup experience — defender DeAndre Yedlin has made one appearance as a sub — the Americans are playing with house money.
Though the FIFA rankings suggested (accurately) they would finish second behind England in Group B, there were genuine questions about player maturity and Berhalter’s coaching chops on the global stage. Failure to advance would not have been a disaster but would have been deeply disappointing and possibly marked the end of Berhalter’s tenure. (His contract is up after the tournament.)
By advancing, however, the U.S. team restored dignity after it missed the 2018 World Cup — its first absence from the sport’s premier event since 1986 — and continued to grow.
“The bigger picture is to make it as far as we can in the tournament,” midfielder Weston McKennie said. “Look back on what it took to get here. Not just the past four years but the last game, this game against Iran. We’ll definitely look back and see what it took, remember it and use it as fuel.”
The Americans will need all the fuel they can unearth against a Dutch side that won Group A with a 2-0-1 record and carries both grand soccer history (three-time finalist, including 2010) and current-day excellence (a star-dotted roster captained by Liverpool’s mammoth defender, Virgil van Dijk.)
“A huge opportunity for us,” U.S. captain Tyler Adams said.
What the U.S. lineup will look like remains unclear following injuries to two starting forwards against Iran. Christian Pulisic suffered a pelvic contusion after colliding with Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand while scoring in the 38th minute, and Josh Sargent left the match in the 77th minute with an apparent ankle injury.
Sargent, who started the first and third matches, was being evaluated Wednesday, a team official said. Haji Wright and Jesús Ferreira are the other strikers on the roster. Wright, who started the second game, looked lost as Sargent’s sub Tuesday. Ferreira has yet to play.
Asked days ago whether he has considered using wingers in the central role, Berhalter said he was happy with his current options. So in all likelihood, Wright or Ferreira would replace Sargent on Saturday.
Pulisic was taken to the hospital for tests while the second half proceeded and was back at the team hotel in time to greet his teammates returning from the stadium. The U.S. Soccer Federation has listed him as day-to-day, a status that seems unlikely to change before Saturday’s match to keep the Dutch in the dark.
Teammates who spoke to him after Tuesday’s match, though, said Pulisic is planning to play. They marveled at how he connected with Sergiño Dest’s headed cross as Beiranvand forcefully came out for the ball. Pulisic got there first, half-volleying it an instant before the heavy collision.
“Just shows his bravery,” midfielder Kellyn Acosta said. “I mean, you want it so bad. I’m glad he was finally rewarded with a goal. He’s super hungry [and] tough as nails.”
The Americans also have displayed unity and fight this tournament, appearing fully invested in the cause.
That is what Berhalter was going for when he finalized the roster, filling several slots with what he calls “glue guys” — players who enhance team chemistry and embrace their reserve roles, even if they weren’t the top talent options.
Those on the field in the last nervy minutes Tuesday fought for one another in repelling Iran’s unrelenting pressure. When the final whistle sounded, players fell to their knees, stomachs and backs — exhausted from the physical and mental weight of winning at the World Cup.
“That was one of those games where you can look to the left and look to the right,” Adams said, “and you’ve got someone battling for you.”
Effort, though, will take a team only so far. Good soccer helps, too. The U.S. goal was just that. It began with goalkeeper Matt Turner controlling the ball with his feet and driving it to midfield. Tim Weah one-touched it to Yunus Musah, who supplied Adams with space. Something was brewing.
Three passes later, McKennie sent a superb delivery to Dest for a header that met Pulisic charging full force into the six-yard box.
“The guys executed it perfectly,” Berhalter said.
The goal made possible a victory that requires historical perspective. Only one other time had the United States won the third game in World Cup group play, in 2010 when Landon Donovan scored in the dying seconds against Algeria to turn looming elimination into certain advancement.
This victory also was the first for the United States since the 2014 opener against Ghana and just the ninth in the program’s 11 World Cup appearances — the same number of triumphs France achieved in just 2014 and 2018 combined. The only times the U.S. team has won two matches in a World Cup were 1930 and 2002.
Onto the knockout round. The Americans have little time to heal and reset. Opportunity awaits.
“There’s no need to even project how far this team can go because the next match is against Holland, and that’s our main focus,” Berhalter said. “It’s great to be in this knockout format. We relish this. It’s an opportunity for our guys to keep grinding and to stick together and enjoy this experience.”
World Cup in Qatar
World champions: Argentina has won the World Cup, defeating France in penalty kicks in a thrilling final in Lusail, Qatar, for its first world championship since 1986. Argentina was led by global soccer star Lionel Messi in what is expected to be his final World Cup appearance. France was bidding to become the first repeat champion since Brazil won consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962.
Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.
Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.