The 2022 United States World Cup post-mortem
A round of 16 exit is what we're becoming used to for the USMNT. This year's exit was a different kind of disappointment to previous ones. This time, there's a much bigger sense of "we belong here."
(Author’s note: I started working on this just days after the USMNT loss to the Netherlands but a busy week at work kept pushing back the completion of this post. Over a week has past now and the news cycle is on to different things, but I spent time working on it so I’m going to publish anyway.
While it’s not something I’ve ever tried to hide, judging by a few peoples comments to me on Twitter the last few weeks apparently to surprise to some to know that I am in fact American. Also based on how many people read my posts on international football compared to the club game it is apparent that you are very much not here for international football coverage. Since this my newsletter and I’m a fan of the USMNT, with some thoughts on the tournament I decided to write them down, but if that’s not what you’re here for, feel free to x out now. No hard feelings.)
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I was 12 years old during the 2002 World Cup. At the time I wasn’t a soccer fan so much as a ‘kid who played soccer.’ I was paying attention to the US team from watching SportsCenter but since the games were on the middle of the night I hadn’t actually watched a single game of that tournament.
That US team managed to rally America behind the sport. 21 year old Landon Donovan was an emerging superstar that everyone could get behind. Apparently, they were becoming so big that they managed to catch the attention of my father who knew soccer as nothing more than '“that sport I drive my son to on Sundays.”
My father figured I might want to watch the historic quarterfinal match against Germany. The match kicked off at 7am so the night before my dad told me if I woke up early and was ready for school by 6:45, I could stay home to watch and he’d drive me to school late.
This was probably the first football match I’d ever watched. To say I really knew what was happening would be a stretch. By the time I got to school that day all I knew was that the Germans had scored, and there was an obvious handball that wasn’t given so obviously the Americans got screwed. Obviously I was disappointed but did I care? I was leaving for summer camp the next week (and wouldn’t have been able to watch the semifinals or final) I can’t imagine that I really did.
It wasn’t until during the COVID lockdown that my friends and I went back and watched this match. That’s when I saw how dominant the US were, how Oliver Kahn stood on his head, how the US really deserved to win, and that missed handball was egregious! If this match happened now it’d be really tough to get over!
I’m gonna fast forward to 2014. By now the US had established themselves firmly as among the top 15-20 teams in the world and heading into the round of 16 match against Belgium spirits were HIGH.
And why shouldn’t they be? The US emerged out of the group of death and should have done it quite easily if not for a last second equalizer from Portugal - a match they throughly deserved to win. A year prior the US had beaten Germany and Belgium in back to back friendlies.
We all know what happened next. Chris Wondolowski misses a tap-in in the final minutes that would have stolen a victory for the US. Belgium wins 2-1 in extra time but man, we were through! We had it!
It was a tough pill to swallow but also, it wasn’t. Belgium thoroughly hammered us on the day. It took Tim Howard setting a World Cup record for saves in a match to even keep this game close. Play this game over 10 times and Wondo probably scores that chance six or seven of them, but in each of those cases the US is already down by far too much for it to matter.
That brings us to this year.
It’s been a few days now since the Netherlands 3-1 win over the United States and while the loss still stings, it’s stinging for entirely different reasons as before.
This time it felt like we were right there. It felt like… we belonged?
Don’t get me wrong. The US got BEAT pretty thoroughly. The Dutch were undoubtedly deserved winners. But it still just feels like there’s a cloud of ‘what if’ hanging over this match.
I know this might not make complete sense, but try to follow along here.
2002 and 2014 had singular ‘what if’ moments. What if that handball was given? What if Wondolowski finishes that chance?This one had what if's all over the place. What if Pulisic buries that chance two minutes into the game? What if Tyler Adams just tracks his runner? What if Tim Ream doesn't swing and miss at that ball right in front of the Dutch goal? What if Haji Wright doesn't take the worst first touch ever?
Now, I’m fully aware that the more ‘what ifs’ there are the more outlandish it is to even suggest you deserve to win a match. The fact that there are so many ‘what ifs’ just goes to show how this wasn’t the Americans day.
That’s the killer part. It wasn’t the US’s day.
In 2002 the Americans played the game of their lives. In 2014 Tim Howard played the game of his life. In 2022 the Americans just didn’t have it that day.
Merely minutes into the game it became obvious that the group stage schedule of three games in eight days had taken it’s toll on the United States. Key players Yunus Musah, Weston McKennie, Tim Weah, Antonee Robinson, and Tyler Adams were all a step slow.For a team that relies on those guys to RUN, if was going to be a problem. If they couldn’t do that, they had no chance. Within a few minutes you knew the US were not going to be able to play at their best.
And yet, they weren’t run off the pitch. Far from it. They played the Dutch very evenly. Every model of xG came out pretty even, with the Dutch having about a 1.7-1.5 advantage.
Those are the kind of numbers that point to a match where anything could have happened! There will be some that argue game state has to do with this, the US were down for almost the entire game therefore they had to attack more but that’s not quite true. The US’s highest chance on xG came when the game was still level. If Christian Pulisic finishes that chance, it’s a completely different game.
That ultimately is your big ‘what if’ for the match.
As Grace Robertson points out, Louis van Gaal had a plan for this match. Unlike England, his plan wasn’t to try and dominate the US with possession, which got stifled by the Americans strong pressing game. Van Gaal wanted to neutralize the Americans strength and thus opted to cede possession to the United States while clogging up the middle. It worked “well,” but only because he got a 1-0 lead. Had Pulisic’s strike went in this wouldn’t have been a good strategy for trying to play from behind.
In the days leading up to the match a few different people at work asked me if the US really could win against the Dutch. I had the same answer every time:
The Netherlands are beatable but I’m not entirely sure if the US are good enough to beat them. We can’t score and we can’t play our best football for more than 60-65 minutes before we tire out. If we don’t have a lead after an hour, I can’t see us getting one. We’ll probably create about four legitimate chances and we’ll have to score on two of them, but we’re going to get an early chance and everything rides on converting that one. If we can get an early lead and make the Dutch play from behind we’ll be in a good spot. They’re not built to play from behind.
On the other side of things, a few days before the match a friend from the UK messaged me saying “USA fans are getting too excited about the Netherlands.” And to that, here’s what I’ll say.
Yes, we were excited. Yes, we were very happy with getting the Netherlands because we thought we had a legitimate chance of winning that match. No that doesn’t mean we expected to win or thought we were favored to win. I don’t think you’d find a single fan who realistically gave us better than a 30-35% chance of winning this match but that’s a better chance then what we’re used to!
Ultimately the US performed right to where their level was. They were easily a top 16 team in this tournament, they were in no way a top 8 team. They rightfully made it to the knockout rounds but not the quarterfinals. That’s not what stings about this loss.
Play that match against Belgium 10 times and US loses about nine of them in 90 minutes. The one match we got is probably the one out of 10 times your goalkeeper makes 14 saves and keeps you in it. But play that match against the Dutch 10 times and you can see three different outcomesacross the 10 games with three and maybe even four of them going the US’s way.
On Saturday it wasn’t their day. It very much wasn’t their day. It was obvious before the Dutch scored their first goal this was one game too far for the legs of the US players. It wasn’t their day and they still played them that evenly.
That’s what stings. The margins are that small and you don’t get another shot at it for another four years.
This was supposed to be my last World Cup/USMNT related post and it was originally going to be divided into two parts, a breakdown of the loss to the Netherlands and a look at where we go from here. However as the top paragraph notes, some time has passed between when I started writing this and when it’s being published and well… A LOT has happened since then. That would have made any look ahead far too long for this post, so if anything, we’ll save that for a separate post.
Having said all that, if the matches were on in the afternoon would I have watched any? I can’t say for sure I would have!
That’s the thing about CONCACAF. You never really get a chance to measure yourself against European or South American sides except in friendlies where, who knows how seriously your opponent is taking it.
What if Dempsey equalizes off a great set piece routine in extra time and they go to penalties?
It was also really weird to see Gio Reyna - who came on at halftime - look equally gassed by the 65th minute. Everyone will rush to blame Reyna hardly playing in the group stages as the reason for this but the World Cup group stage is not the place to build match fitness.
Reyna was also playing with his club up until three weeks before this match. Three weeks is not quite long enough to lose your match fitness (when you’re still in full time training). This lack of fitness is probably the best explanation as to why he didn’t play much in the group stages.
It must be noted that every single American fan who knows about xG WAS saying “it’s weird that the Dutch goals didn’t come up as stronger in the xG models.” Those were all good chances and I don’t think anyone was surprised to see the Dutch convert on any of them.
Over 90 minutes