AL RAYYAN, Qatar – For the last four years, Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and the rest of the U.S. men’s national team have talked openly and often about their collective goal of “changing the way the world views American soccer.”
Despite Saturday’s disappointing but deserved 3-1 loss to the Netherlands in the round of 16 at the 2022 World Cup, the Americans believe they have done exactly that over the last two weeks in Qatar.
“This tournament has really restored a lot of belief, restored a lot of respect to U.S. Soccer and soccer in our country,” McKennie told reporters in the aftermath of Saturday’s defeat at Khalifa International Stadium. “I think we’ve shown that we can be giants eventually. We may not be there yet, but I think we’re definitely on our way.”
It’s understandable that some fans don’t want to hear that. Not now. In the wake of yet another bitter World Cup exit in the first match of the knockout phase — the Americans were also eliminated at this stage in 2010 and 2014 — it’s easy to be pessimistic, to think that no progress has been made. The heartbreak is still fresh. It’s hard to put that emotion aside and look clear-eyed at the bigger picture.
McKennie is right that the U.S. men still aren’t yet legitimate World Cup contenders.
The Netherlands — the best country never to win the title and one capable of hoisting the trophy later this month — were an obvious step up in class. The Dutch ruthlessly punished the U.S. for not converting its chances. Before the Americans knew what hit them, they were already chasing the game.
The future is bright, we can't wait for 2026 🇺🇸 🙌 pic.twitter.com/mNAjEGt4Ii— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) December 4, 2022
But the USA’s performance in Qatar must be viewed in the context of what came before it. The American men didn’t even qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Not only did this historically young team made it back, they survived arguably the toughest group in the competition and, in the process, provided some hope that they can make real noise in 2026, when the country will host an expanded 48-team event along with continental neighbors Canada and Mexico.
“We didn’t qualify for the last World Cup, and here we are in the round of 16,” an almost inconsolable Pulisic said after their run here came to an end. “We’ve definitely come a long way.”
That doesn’t mean the Americans leave Qatar satisfied. They think they could’ve gone a little further this year, and they’re as disappointed with Saturday’s loss as anyone.
Nobody was more upset than Pulisic, whose game winner in the final first round match against Iran will be the lasting image of this squad’s run.
“It hurts after a tough loss like that,” Pulisic said. “We feel like we could have could have had more.”
For the U.S. players and their supporters, that pain will no doubt linger. As the days and weeks pass, though, fans and the team will perhaps gain a greater appreciation of the journey they went on together over the last three weeks.
“There’s, for sure, moments that we can be proud of,” Pulisic said.
Their performances might even have changed a few minds.
“They’re really tough,” Netherlands goalkeeper Andries Noppert said of the Americans. “They go like hell. They’re working together. They don’t give up. The U.S., they have a good squad. We’re happy that we beat them.”
“Everyone can be proud with how we’ve handled ourselves, how we’ve carried ourselves, and the effort we’ve put in,” U.S. left back Antonee Robinson added. “It’s a very young group.”
The second-youngest squad in the tournament, in fact. For all of them except veteran right back DeAndre Yedlin, this was their first World Cup experience.
“I think this team has given a lot of people hope. I think people see the talent on this team, and they get excited,” Yedlin said. “It’s a step forward.”
Several things can be true simultaneously. Players and fans can be both sad and proud. They can be both happy with reaching the second round after an eight-year World Cup hiatus and still not satisfied by it.
The U.S. team’s showing at Qatar 2022 can be both a success and a disappointment. That mix of emotions alone is a sign of progress.
There were no silver linings when an almost entirely different American squad failed to make it to the biggest stage four years ago. This new generation picked a devastating program up off the mat.
Despite taking one on the chin against a superior foe with the entire world watching, the core of this U.S. team will live to fight another day.
“This was a big opportunity for a lot of us in this tournament and I think we did really well with it,” McKennie said. “Obviously, we went out, and it sucks. But at the same time, a lot of us will use this as a chip on our shoulder over the next four years to try and prove what we can do.”
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