For the second straight game Gregg Berhalter’s USMNT squad must win to stay alive in the World Cup, this time with the Dutch providing a stiff test in the Round of 16.
Tuesday’s victory over Iran was narrow, hard-fought but ultimately euphoric demonstration of a mature US side that noticeably progressed through the three games of the tournament.
After taking a first-half lead through the heroics of Christian Pulisic – who has been cleared to play today after having his grapes squished in the process of scoring – the team held on under considerable pressure from the Iranians to reach the knockout round.
While the Dutch, who won Group A with relative ease, will be a considerably tougher task than the Iranians, it should be said that they are, in all likelihood, a small step below the English in terms of top-to-bottom quality.
Still, it would be folly to underestimate one of the teams that has spent most of its history constantly riding the borderline between the top tier of the global elite, and the second group of teams that is a lucky run away from being a true contender.
In this tournament, the Dutch have been a quixotic side who have largely failed to impress in a manner that would put them as favorites to win it all or even reach the final, however their quality is still remarkable.
PSV’s Cody Gakpo has been the start for the team, scoring in each of their three games, and is destined to be the hottest commodity of the upcoming winter transfer window.
The fact that Gakpo is not on an island but also has Luuk de Jong and Memphis Depay – two excellent players in their own right – joining in the attack will be a hard test for the Americans’ back line.
That back-four will perhaps be the key to the game, and will provide Berhalter’s team their best chance of victory. They have been perhaps the most solid unit of the 32 teams in the tournament, as the US was the only team to not allow a goal from the run of play in the first three group games.
This has been helped by a couple of factors, most notably the unexpected resurgence of veteran Tim Ream, and the consistency of – for the most part – having the same players on the field across all three games.
The one exception to that latter point was arguably Berhalter’s most commendable action since the start of the tournament, as he replaced every-game starter Walker Zimmerman – who had been shaky against Wales and England – with the somewhat untested Cameron Carter-Vickers on Tuesday.
The result was immense, as CCV and Ream formed a solid partnership that could shut down the aforementioned Dutch trio. They will need help from outside backs Sergiño Dest and Antonee Robinson, who have demonstrated their ability to both be dangerous in the attack and solid in defense when necessary.
Nevertheless, few would expect or hope a scoreless draw to be the result, meaning the Americans must find a way to put the ball into Andires Noppert’s net. The key to the Dutch defensive effort comes down to three words: Virgil. van. Dijk.
The Liverpool central defender and Netherlands captain is regarded as the best in the world at his position, and will set up the toughest obstacle to a US attack that has, despite their impressive-looking first-half play in all three games, has only scored two goals over 270 minutes.
Pulisic’s return will be a boost, however there are questions whether the team will be able to find the same openings against the Dutch defense that they have in the previous games, or maintain the energy to mount any second-half or overtime heroics of their own if needed.
Weston McKennie is still far from fit enough to play a full 90 minutes, much less 120, 20 year-old Yunus Musah is still undergoing a maturing process that often sees a second-half drop-off necessitating a switch, and Pulisic’s status, apart from generally available, is still a concern.
This will put added significance on Berhalter’s substitutes, which have been at best questionable, and frankly his biggest weakness in this tournament.
Assuming the coach continues his efforts to maintain consistency, fan favorites Brenden Aaronson and Gio Reyna will be kept as bench options, which in a knockout game where 120 minutes is a distinct possibility, is more reasonable than in the previous three.
Still, the sub bench behind those two is far from star-studded, even if many players are situationally capable, meaning that Berhalter will have to be less haphazard with his switches.
In the end, it must be said that the Dutch are slight favorites to earn a likely quarterfinal match against Argentina, however they are far from heavy favorites. Few would be truly shocked if the Americans pulled off a historic upset, setting up a very different match-up than what they faced against the heavily favored Belgians eight years ago.