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Bitter World Cup finish gives Team USA a chance to look ahead


AL RAYYAN, Qatar — The whistle blew for the United States at this World Cup, and through the speakers at Khalifa International Stadium came a Dutch version of “Auld Lang Syne.”

The song is familiar to Americans as a New Year’s anthem, played just in time between two distinct phases of time, a change in the calendar. And so it was for this American football team: a chance to reflect on what was and resolve to improve in the future.

The winning team from the Netherlands, 3-1 winners headed to the quarter-finals, danced in a group. The Americans stood quietly outside, mostly with their hands on their hips.

“It’s frustrating to start with,” United States captain Tyler Adams said of the complex emotions. “But after thinking for this brief moment, you can really sit here and think that this is probably the first time in a long time that people are going to say, ‘Wow, there’s something special about this team. “”

This year’s USA team was considered young and talented, the second youngest roster in the tournament, with the youngest starting lineup. But this World Cup may be a little out of time for a program that thinks it’s a few years away from full bloom.

The goal in Qatar, at least for most fans and commentators, and perhaps even for some close to the team, was to qualify for the group stage and reach the knockout stages. It was done. But the goals increase with each success, so the defeat against the Dutch was met with sorrow, and then with perspective.

A disappointing game. A pretty good tournament. A bright future.

“When you put four performances like that on the court, it really gives people something to be excited about,” Adams said.

The Americans thought they got along well with the Dutch. And a draw with England and a loss to a scrappy Iran saw them adjust their ambitions ahead of the knockout stage.

“We’ve had a lot of positives in this tournament, enough to move forward,” defender Walker Zimmerman said. “That’s what makes this loss hurt.”

What they have lost is an opportunity in the present. What they found was an expectation.

It was a tease for the fans on Saturday, their emotions rising and falling. And it’s a tease for the fans four years from now, for a World Cup to be hosted by the United States, Mexico and Canada.

“It’s difficult at the moment, just because the World Cup takes place every four years – that makes it so unique and so painful, when you know how long you have to wait to get back to that stage,” said Zimmermann. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to stop being hungry. That doesn’t mean we’re going to stop thinking about winning a World Cup. But it hurts when you know you have four years to wait.

The match was closer than the score, at least in the beginning, then briefly behind, which added to the disappointment.

Christian Pulisic, who left the game against Iran for hospital after colliding while scoring his only goal, came close to scoring in the opening minutes against the Netherlands. Alone in the box, he fired a quick shot into the goalkeeper’s leg.

The Netherlands scored in the 10th minute with a strategy they used repeatedly. He sent a ball from the right side into a gap behind the defenders who had raced towards the goal. The first time, two steps inside the box, Memphis Depay fired a shot past goalkeeper Matt Turner.

It was only the second goal the Americans allowed in the tournament, and the first that was not a penalty.

Then, with about 30 seconds left in the half, the Dutch doubled the goal. Denzel Dumfries again worked freely through the middle of a slow footed defence, again centered a pass a little behind. Daley Blind was the eager receiver this time, and his shot left Turner waving his arms in anger at the dispirited defenders in front of him.

“It was brutal,” Turner said of the second goal. “It was on a throw-in. There’s really no excuse for that. Everything that could have gone wrong on this game did.

But, like his teammates, Turner took a step back, figuratively speaking, when asked about the team’s future, a discussion that could be recast somewhat after this World Cup run.

“There’s huge potential, and if you don’t see it, I don’t really know,” Turner said. “We played England, we played the Netherlands and we gave both teams a very difficult time.”

The Americans showed some of that potential in the second half. The energy has improved. Chances have come and gone. The defense tightened up and Turner made several big saves to keep the game within reach.

And in the 76th minute, Pulisic broke away from the right side, headed for goal and sent a low pass which hit the right foot of substitute striker Haji Wright, who lifted the ball overhead 6 feet 8 inches. Dutch goalkeeper Andries Noppert.

Suddenly it was 2-1 and the Americans had momentum. They had a chance. Five minutes later it ended with another Dutch goal. But something else had already begun: rising expectations.

The whistle marked the end of one phase, the beginning of another. The song that got the Dutch dancing might have been more appropriate for the Americans.

A time to reflect, a time to resolve.

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