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To Nobody’s Surprise, The Americans Deliver No Surprises

Christian Pulisic #10 of the United States reacts at the final whistle after a FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Round of 16 match between Netherlands and USMNT at Khalifa International Stadium on December 3, 2022 in Al Rayyan, Qatar. He's dejected with his head in shirt and the USMNT just got a thorough drubbing.
Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images

No phrase is more depressing in soccer than "clinical performance." OK, that's not true. Lots of phrases are worse, starting with "slave labor," "construction deaths," and "FIFA executive committee," but that's the official disclaimer that allows us to feel less dirty about enjoying the event.

But yeah, "clinical performance" is what the Dutch applied to the United States this morning. They won by the right margin, two goals. They won by the right score, 3-1. They won the moments that mattered rather than the bogus-osity of possession time. For the U.S., this meant their defensive frailties were exposed, their forward deficiencies displayed. The game as a whole was neither exhilarating nor crushing. It was just a game that ran according to Hoyle, with the Dutch being better in nearly every position from start to finish. Frankly, the match would have been easier for the casual fan to comprehend had the Dutch played in orange lab coats.

The hopes of the purest hearts (yeah, you know who you are) were crushed within 10 minutes, first when Christian Pulisic's one moment of visibility was parried by Dutch keeper Andries Noppert three minutes in—and then seven minutes later when Denzel Dumfries created and then exposed the gaps in the American defense finding Memphis (née Depay) for the insurmountable 1-0 lead. At that moment, Dutch manager Louis Van Gaal could enforce his strategic plan to let the Americans have all the ineffective possession and then calmly dismiss them and spring forward with counters that resulted in all three Netherlands goals. He knew what the Americans couldn't do, let them not do them to their heart's delight, and then responded with the brains and brilliance of his own significantly superior side, most notably conductor Frenkie de Jong.

And that was that. Even at 2-1, after Haji Wright's almost comically accidental goal created by a rare Dutch clearance blinder, the Americans never looked capable of creating danger, and they didn't. Within five minutes, Dumfries tore a hole in the doughy right side of the American defense and reinforced the two-goal advantage. Clinical? Call it antiseptic.

Some instant analyses described the U.S. as disappointing, which is hyper-patriotic inanity. They neither overwhelmed nor underwhelmed—indeed, they whelmed the hell out of a tournament where whelmage was the best they could hope for. They demonstrably achieved the middling standard assigned to them by most pre-Cup examinations. They were ranked 16th by the non-bribed unit of FIFA going into the tournament and finished 16th. Other than taking one for the team in the Iran match, Pulisic played without support and could not create enough support for his mates. Even the alleged magic that was supposed to come with the insertion of Gio Reyna never materialized, proving yet again that the analysis that matters most is that the Americans are in that netherworld between the top of CONCACAF and the middle of UEFA. They don't have enough players to hide their coaching shortcomings, they don't have enough coaching to overcome their talent discrepancies and, when we describe "shortcomings," we are setting "make a deep run" as the baseline. They landed right where they should have landed.

No, this is not a harbinger of the future. Their improvements did not happen in a vacuum. The best sides get better, too, and when they eventually fade (Germany/Belgium, et al), they are replaced by other pluck-and-luck teams like Japan and Morocco. The American headway is measured only by comparing them to previous American sides, so the international breakthrough that is always predicted remains well out of reach when compared to teams that have done this stuff before. Like ... oh, let's say the Netherlands.

So the World Cup with all its moral baggage and entertainment effervescence goes on without the U.S., as apparently everyone from pundits to bookies imagined it would be at this stage. The U.S. cuts its margins prosciutto-thin at this level, and eventually they run out of ham. That's what happened Saturday. Nothing more, nothing less.

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