In their most important match since facing Iran four days ago, the Americans draw a team with a stingy defense, possession-hogging midfield and forwards struggling to convert scoring chances. No, they are not practicing against themselves.
Consider the Dutch a more experienced and, perhaps, more talented version of the United States, though in Qatar they, glaringly, have lacked the panache — a stylish, daring edge — that defines their national team as much as their orange kits.
Plodding along in Group A, the Dutch looked vulnerable — but please do not confuse that for diminished or unimposing. Virgil van Dijk remains one of the best center backs in the world, and Frenkie de Jong remains one of the better midfielders in the world, and soon Cody Gakpo, who has scored three goals this tournament, could be one of the best strikers in the world, too.
Call it a hunch, but the Americans are not intimidated by any of this — the Dutch, the pressure, the atmosphere. One of the youngest teams in the World Cup, the United States emerged from a group loaded with land mines and allowed just one goal, on a penalty.
Needing a victory in a match fraught with geopolitical ramifications, the Americans won that, too, on a goal that left Christian Pulisic, after colliding with the Iranian goalkeeper, writhing with an injury later characterized, in some rather euphemistic nomenclature, as a “pelvic contusion.”
Against the Netherlands, the condition of Pulisic’s, umm, netherlands will dictate how well he can turn, sprint and feint, which we hear are all rather critical actions for a soccer player. Complementing him, though, is one of the more fearsome midfields in Qatar. Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Yunus Musah played an enormous role in neutralizing England and driving play in all three matches. Still unclear is how, if at all, Gio Reyna, perhaps the Americans’ most creative player up front, will feature against the Dutch.
For this generation of Americans, after enduring the indignity of failing to qualify in 2018, Qatar projected as a springboard for 2026, when the United States would be expected to truly shine in a competition staged on its soil. Four years early, they are equipped to reach what would be only their second quarterfinal.
All they have to do is beat themselves.