RAYYAN, Qatar — To a man, the U.S. men’s national soccer team coaches and players spoke of a bright future, of renewed interest in the program and regained respect globally. Their World Cup ended Saturday with a 3-1 round-of-16 defeat to the Netherlands in a match against a practiced opponent that exposed shortcomings and innocence.
As the ambitious USMNT exits the World Cup, the focus shifts to what’s possible
Within the ambitious group, though, there was a feeling they had only scratched the surface.
Thirteen players who helped form the nucleus are 25 or younger and most are employed by clubs in major European leagues. Others in that age range, from this roster and the wider player pool, were waiting in the wings.
It’s not just a promising group but a tight group, one that parlayed chemistry into cohesive performances for much of their stay. Even after the disappointment of being eliminated, the players remained together late into the night talking about what’s possible in 2026, when the World Cup is staged in the United States, Mexico and Canada.
“Can we win against top teams? Can we perform well against top teams well enough to win? I think this group is close,” Coach Gregg Berhalter said. “The American public should be optimistic.”
The U.S. team showed it belonged here, going toe to toe with England, pushing the Netherlands and being among five of the 32 countries to go unbeaten in the group stage. The breakthrough moment against the titans of the game, though, remains elusive.
Over 32 years and eight appearances, the U.S. record is 2-13-7 against teams from Europe and South America, soccer’s dominant continents. In Qatar, the Americans gained draws against Wales and England and fell to the Netherlands.
Baby steps for an adolescent team.
“They can look forward to a great future,” said Dutchman Denzel Dumfries, who dominated the right flank and posted a goal and two assists. “They can certainly grow into an elite team.”
The first order of business is who will lead the way. Berhalter’s contract expires soon and the U.S. Soccer Federation must decide whether he is the man to take the program to the next level.
That’s assuming Berhalter wants to stay on the job; he could decide to return to the day-to-day demands of coaching a club.
“For the last month, month and a half, I just only focused on the World Cup and focused on achieving things with this group,” Berhalter said Saturday, when asked what his future holds. “The next couple of weeks, I’ll clear my head, I’ll sit down and think about what’s next.”
Berhalter earned credit for fostering a family atmosphere, integrating young players and implementing a style that, when effective, brought fun and joy.
On his watch, the United States returned to the World Cup after a compact schedule of qualifiers and, in the summer 2021, defeated rival Mexico in the Concacaf Nations League and Gold Cup finals.
Berhalter also received criticism for tactical decisions and roster and lineup choices — not unlike the scrutiny directed at almost every coach at this level.
In the World Cup, the United States was defensively sound until Saturday and created numerous scoring chances, only to lack sophistication and a finishing touch. Single goals against Wales and Iran were well-crafted, and perseverance led to a late score against the Netherlands, but numerous opportunities went unfulfilled, namely Christian Pulisic’s golden moment early in Saturday’s game.
In eight of their past nine matches overall, the Americans scored multiple goals against only Grenada.
The best players in the U.S. attack remain on the flanks and in midfield, not at striker. Josh Sargent, Haji Wright and Jesús Ferreira all received World Cup starts, with Wright scoring as a sub Saturday. A lethal scorer at that position is not mandatory, but with one, there is a level of menace and an ability to draws defenders, which opens space for others.
While Berhalter — or whoever coaches the team — continues to mold the player pool, the USSF will outline plans for preparing the team for the 2026 tournament.
The first camp of the next cycle is next month in the Los Angeles area for friendlies against Serbia and Colombia. Because the dates do not fall in a FIFA international window, most European-based players are not available. The first full availability will come in March for Nations League matches against El Salvador and Grenada.
Because the United States, Mexico and Canada are expected to receive automatic berths in the expanded, 48-team World Cup in 2026, they will not participate in the qualifiers. Without those games, tournaments such as the annual Nations League and 2023 and 2025 Gold Cups will take center stage.
Several U.S. World Cup players are age eligible for the 2024 Olympic Games in France, which, for the most part, is an under-23 tournament. The U.S. men last qualified for the Summer Games in 2008.
There have also been talks to stage the 2024 Copa America, the prestigious South American championship, in the United States, an event that presumably would accommodate all three World Cup hosts.
All activities over the next 3½ years will prepare the U.S. players for a World Cup that will offer another chance to grow both the program and the sport.
“This was a big opportunity for a lot of us,” midfielder Weston McKennie said of the Qatari odyssey. “We did really well with it. We went out [with Saturday’s defeat], 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 to prove what we can do.”
World Cup in Qatar
The latest: The knockout stage continued at the World Cup on Saturday with Argentina beating Australia, 2-1, in the round of 16. Argentina, featuring global star Lionel Messi in what is probably his final World Cup, is among the favorites to win the tournament and managed to finish first in Group C and move on to the quarterfinals despite a shocking loss to Saudi Arabia in its first game.
USMNT: The U.S. men’s national team fell to the Netherlands, 3-1, on Saturday in the opening match of the round of 16. The Netherlands, winners of Group A, had finished the group stage without a loss, conceding just a single goal. Its winning streak continues, while the U.S. run is over.
Knock out round schedule: A World Cup group stage filled with shocking upsets and dramatic turnarounds will now give way to a knockout round that promises more surprises.
Today’s WorldView: Ishaan Tharoor, The Post’s foreign desk columnist, chronicles his week at the World Cup in Qatar.