What did the US lack most at the World Cup? Football intelligence

<span>Photograph: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP</span>
Photograph: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

As his players slumped to the ground after full-time at Khalifa International Stadium, their World Cup dreams in pieces, US head coach Gregg Berhalter took to the pitch brandishing his Moleskine notebook. As he moved through the throng – wrapping his arm around a weeping Tim Weah, offering words of consolation to Christian Pulisic, applauding the American fans – the notebook stayed with him, held aloft seemingly as a symbol of the task that lies ahead if the US are to progress any further than this at their home World Cup in 2026. A manager ready to get back to work at the very moment of defeat sends a strong message, but in truth the technical and tactical deficiencies on display throughout the US’s defeat to a ruthless Dutch outfit suggest that more work was needed before Berhalter’s squad touched down in Doha. What this team has most missed throughout the World Cup is basic football intelligence, the kind of smarts that the Dutch displayed in spades. Like Gio Reyna, Berhalter’s moleskine made its cameo in Qatar too late.

A round of 16 exit feels like a par score for the US, and there is of course no indignity in going down to one of the world’s great footballing nations; America can feel some satisfaction in counting itself among the world’s top 16 sides; and so on. But cliches and ritual expressions of pride can’t hide that the manner of USA’s exit here was particularly disappointing. A country of America’s size, wealth, and ambition – not to mention one in which soccer is such an enduringly popular participation sport – should aspire to more at the World Cup.

Related: USA’s familiar shortcomings exposed against clinical Dutch at World Cup

“This is a difficult one to handle,” Berhalter reflected when interviewed on the pitch after full-time. “We came up short today, but not for a lack of effort.” Effort may not have been lacking, but many other qualities essential to footballing success were: commitment off the ball, defensive nous, ruthlessness in front of goal. Despite the precision of the opposition’s finishing, the US were not undone by moments of individual brilliance, quirks of technology, or other acts of semi-divine footballing intervention; instead their demise was almost entirely self-inflicted. The US failures were in defense and attack, basic areas of core technical competence. Truly, this was a team who saved their worst for last.

Coming into the round of 16 the US back four – an area that many identified in the run-up to this World Cup as a weakness – had proven remarkably resilient, snuffing out England’s starry frontline, keeping Iran at bay in the final group match, and conceding just one goal (the result of Walker Zimmerman’s agricultural lunge on Gareth Bale in their tournament opener against Wales). The story here was a dispiriting reversal. All three of the Netherlands’ goals resulted from a failure to track and close players down, a breakdown in the Berhalter press. Despite their obvious prowess and thrust going forward, the US’s wide players all too often switched off when the Dutch had the ball; all the marauding in the world won’t matter if you drop off in defense and allow opposition attackers to meet balls into the penalty area uncontested. Antonee Robinson’s failure to mark Denzel Dumfries for the third goal – leaving the Dutchman completely open at the far post with seemingly enough time before he rifled his volley past Matt Turner to compose and post a thank you letter to Robinson at his home address – was particularly poor, reflecting not nerves or a lack of fitness but a kind of witlessness. Other lapses were of a similar character: conceding right before half-time – football’s canonical danger zone – is a failure of concentration, of game management.

At the other end of the pitch things were hardly better, despite the openings created by Weah, Pulisic, and Sergiño Dest. Having tinkered first with Josh Sargent, then Haji Wright, then Sargent again as his starting striker during the group stage, Berhalter here preferred Jesus Ferreira, but the FC Dallas forward struggled to get on the ball. Pulisic will rue the golden chance he spurned in the third minute, but the real emblem of America’s labors in front of goal was Wright, who come on late as the US was chasing the game, took an appalling first touch when he was clear on goal with only Dutch keeper Andries Noppert to beat, then scored by accident a few minutes later, the ball flicking off the back of his heel from a low cross then looping over Noppert’s head. The image of an American striker wasting a chance when he should have scored then scoring when he didn’t mean to offered a distressingly neat summary of the USMNT’s difficulties in front of goal at this World Cup. In truth none of Wright, Sargent, or Ferreira has convinced in Qatar, and against the Dutch Berhalter held off on unleashing Reyna, his one true wildcard off the bench, until it was too late.

Ultimately this match, like USA’s World Cup more generally, was defined by scarcity: a lack of quality up front, and a lack of application in defense. For the USMNT this has been a tournament of good halves followed immediately by bad halves, decent possession and blunt finishing – a true curate’s egg. With the possible exception of the encounter with England, at no point has the team shown themselves capable of truly controlling a match from beginning to end. Iran could and probably should have scored in the second half of the final group match, the late concession to a mediocre Welsh side was a practical own goal, and all the US’s early brightness in possession came to nothing against the Dutch. The USMNT have now thoroughly atoned for the debacle of 2017, and even if this team don’t quite yet have the sense of “identity” that Berhalter claimed they do after full-time against the Dutch, there’s at least a clear outline of who their most important players are: Tyler Adams, Pulisic, and Weah. There has been no shortage of breakout stars, players to inspire genuine optimism as the team marches towards 2026. Yunus Musah brings a dash of Iberian class to the midfield, allowing this team to play in a style that’s far more cultured than was the case for previous vintages of the USMNT. Though disappointing in the round of 16, both Dest and Robinson have brought a darting exhilaration to America’s forays down the flanks. And Tim Ream has been ruggedly composed at the back, though it’s unclear whether the Fulham veteran’s late-career coming of age can extend to 2026, when he will be at the doorstep of his 40s.

No doubt the official narrative from this tournament will be about hope, baby steps, progress on and off the pitch, and all that there is to look forward to in 2026. Immediately after the match Adams expressed his hope that the US team “gave the fans something to be excited about moving forward”, adding: “We’re not there yet, but we’re close.” But are they? Much has been made of this squad’s youth – as the Fox commentators incessantly reminded American viewers throughout the match, the US has the second youngest squad at the World Cup – but these players aren’t children. They’re mature professionals: Pulisic is 24, Robinson is 25, Turner is 28, Adams is 23.

As Arsène Wenger once said about his then-promising young striker Emmanuel Adebayor, “At 23, it’s time to play.” Despite USA’s valiant showing in Qatar, it’s debatable whether the so-called golden generation has the talent or consistency needed to put together a run of performances that will take them further than this at a World Cup. On the one hand, this is a developing squad with clear room for improvement. On the other, scoring and defending tend to be two rather important parts of the sport. If the USMNT can’t get it together now, will they ever?