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Why Not U.S.?

DOHA, QATAR - NOVEMBER 29: Sergino Dest of USA controls the ball during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group B match between IR Iran and USA at Al Thumama Stadium on November 29, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)
Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

By securing a point against their English rivals and then advancing out of a tough Group B, the United States men's national team has already met expectations. Now it is time to surpass them.

That framing is perhaps not precisely correct, as the USMNT was rated higher than both Wales and Iran, and was drawn from Pot 2. The odds were in the team's favor, and they mostly controlled both matchups as they were favored to, even if they only managed one goal in each game and had to defend with their pants on fire for long stretches. No matter how well they played in the group, especially against England, falling short to Iran on the final matchday would have been an incredible disappointment for a group that's forged such a coherent, defiant identity, no matter how promising the process was. Therefore, it would have been fair to expect them not just to make it out of the group, but to reach for more and get into the quarterfinals.

The counterpoint here is that the U.S.'s foe in the round of 16 is the Netherlands, who are justifiably favored over the Americans. This dissonance—will it still be a huge bummer if the U.S. don't get past a theoretically superior Dutch team even if they made it out of the group?—speaks to what is so great about this stage of the World Cup. The process matters, but it is ultimately indeterminate. Games can only go one of two ways. So much is hanging in the balance, and though recent history, the quantum uncertainty of Christian Pulisic's dick and balls, and the names on both the front and back of their opponents' jerseys suggest the U.S. will lose and that you should not be nervous about our chances because they don't exist, I propose the following tautology: We won't know the U.S. is capable of beating a world-class team until they beat a world-class team. So much evidence (roughly 300 minutes and zero open-play goals of it) suggests this is a new USMNT, capable of heretofore unforeseen pyrotechnics. A Moment is coming, someday, and given the way the U.S. and Netherlands have played their three games in (and in the Netherlands' case, against) Qatar, I don't see any reason why it can't happen on Saturday. Why not us?

If it's not going to happen, it will likely be because of the efforts of Frenkie de Jong, Cody Gakpo, and Virgil van Dijk. Though the Dutch won their group, they have hardly impressed. They've looked alternately toothless and confused, and Ecuador and Senegal absolutely could have beaten them; indeed, Ecuador would have but for a winner disallowed by a Byzantine VAR check. Still, they've managed to keep a lid on things thanks to Virgil calmly snuffing out all sorts of dangerous balls into the area and De Jong carrying the ball and his whole team, and they've managed to rack up seven points on only 12 shots against the two real teams they played because Cody Gakpo has been taking those shots, and he's a true baller. He scored with a header from a tough angle in the opener, opened the scoring against Qatar with a falling-over, being-pincered-by-two-defenders-ass screamer with his right foot, and sandwiched this left-foot beauty between those other two goals.

Most would probably rate De Jong, Gakpo, and Virgil as the best three players in Saturday's game, which, fine, but consider also: the USMNT has Tyler Adams, Yunus Musah, and Weston McKennie, who have never looked better. The midfield trio has controlled the bulk of every game it's taken part in at this tournament. On the one hand, that's promising. Davy Klaassen doesn't put fear in my heart. On the other, it's an open question whether they will have the energy to crunch and munch De Jong and his crew after they've given so much in the U.S.'s first three games. Yunus Musah looked dead on his feet in stoppage time against Iran, while McKennie, despite hitting the pass that led to the U.S.'s goal today and once again playing with impressive speed, also doesn't seem 100 percent recovered from his thigh injury (I think I'm beyond worrying about Tyler Adams, even if he did lose a duel or two at the end of the Iran game.)

A solution to the USMNT's questionably extant Pulisic/midfield fatigue problems exists and he is named Gio Reyna, and he can do nasty things to his enemies and he has played like 11 minutes in Qatar. The Dutch did not possess as much of the ball as one might have expected against Ecuador and Senegal (though that's tilted by them scoring in the fifth minute against La Tri), so if the U.S. is going to once again spend a bunch of this weekend's match trying to break down a defense determined not to be broken down, they can't do much better than Reyna if one of their main dudes can't go. Even if they can, one wonders how many of the U.S.'s goalscoring problems would be solved by Reyna doing some of those nasty things, or pushing Tim Weah up to the front into the accursed striker spot.

If goalscoring has been a worry, defending the goal has been easily the biggest and most pleasant surprise of the U.S.'s World Cup run. Cameron Carter-Vickers's national team career was basically nonexistent for three years until six months ago, and he'd never started a game alongside Tim Ream until the pivotal Iran match. Like Ream, he was unimpeachable. Neither Mehdi Taremi's physicality nor Sardar Azmoun's speed seriously troubled Carter-Vickers, and his ball-playing skills helped keep the team's tempo high. I don't know if he will start, and I think Gakpo is hot enough right now that he could dunk on anyone from any angle, but the defense has been tremendous. Antonee Robinson is omnipresent. His fullback counterpart, Sergiño Dest, looks more confident in each successive half, and on Saturday, he will be especially motivated to do his thing.

Dest, of course, snubbed a Dutch team he could have reasonably expected to start for to play for the USMNT. He was born 20 kilometers east of Amsterdam, and he spent the first 20 years of his life in the Netherlands. He's been electric for the USMNT, and the divergent ways Dest and Robinson have been part of what's been so fun about this three-game stretch. Robinson is steadily great up and down the length of the left touchline, dutifully combining with Christian Pulisic, overlapping when he should be overlapping, and doing the necessary defensive work to keep two straight clean sheets. Dest has done basically none of that, yet has been perhaps more impactful. His assist on Tuesday's lone goal was well-earned, and he was in position to take a handful more of big, fuck-you type shots. He's reliably flayed defenders, looked for the big ball, gotten caught out of position a ton, yet gives the team, a team that's spent a lot of time knocking on a closed door, some very important electricity.

The whole nation wants him to skin Daley Blind on Saturday, and I feel relieved that the person who wants to do that most seems to be Sergiño Dest. To his immense credit, Dest never lacks for confidence, and he's seemed to relax into his role as this tournament has unspooled. There he is on the touchline, casually taking two defenders on. There he is in the middle, cutting it back to Weston McKennie instead of doing the prudent thing. There he is, streaking into the box and teeing up Christian Pulisic.

The United States has qualified for round of 16 in each of the last two World Cups they've qualified for. They have lost both times, in games against better teams that were there for the taking. Asamoah Gyan made the most of his moment in 2010, Chris Wondolowski didn't four years later, and the U.S. left both matchups with a bitter taste, knowing they approached the cusp of something historic and blinked. I don't know if they'll be in this round of 16 matchup until the end, I don't know if they are even capable of scoring multiple goals in the same game, but I am comforted by the fact that the team itself absolutely thinks they can and should beat Netherlands.

And why shouldn't they? They've pushed far out into the unknown. To tautologize again: To make the World Cup quarterfinals, you must first believe you can make the World Cup quarterfinals. Worry all you want—and buddy, I plan to—about whether everyone is tired, whether Christian Pulisic's down-belows remain intact, whether any of the team's strikers can perform the job made explicit in the name of their position, whether Gio Reyna can get onto the field, whether Gregg Berhalter can stop pressing the wrong substitute buttons every single time, whether the U.S.'s ad hoc backline can continue to hold, but do not worry about the team's mentality. They obviously believe they can win, and I think you should too.

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