The United States men’s national team is fighting this World Cup on two fronts.
There’s the immense challenge on the ground in Qatar, where the underdog Americans — after meeting expectations by advancing through the group stage — will take on the Netherlands on Saturday in the Round of 16 in Al Rayyan, seeking their first quarterfinal berth since 2002.
Then there’s the progress occurring in how the U.S. team is recognized on the global soccer stage (much more credibly, thank you very much) and the growing support it is receiving back home. The movement is being catalyzed everywhere kids are strapping on shin guards and fans are raising pints to the boys in red, white and blue.
“The support from the U.S. has been a bit surreal. … It’s really, really cool to see how much a tournament can change the perspective on people supporting soccer,” midfielder and captain Tyler Adams said Friday. “And that was one of our goals coming into the tournament. The further we go, the more support that we gather, and that’s what we want. We want the next generation and generations to come to have that support behind them.
“When we can play an attractive style and fight and represent the country in the right way, you’re going to gather that support.”
The United States’ upset bid will be heavily influenced by the fitness of star wing Christian Pulisic, who suffered a pelvic injury in scoring the goal that beat Iran on Tuesday. Pulisic was cleared Friday to play, but if he’s less than 100 percent, it will take a toll on a team that has dominated the midfield in three matches — through the revelatory trio of Adams, Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah — but has had trouble finishing. The Americans have notched just two goals, both involving Pulisic.
On the other side is a Dutch team that ranks No. 8 in the world, is undefeated in its past 20 matches (including the past 18 since coach Louis van Gaal again took over) and won its group without incident — though also without inspiring much fear. Van Gaal also made noise Friday about a flu bug going around the Dutch team. Still, there is elite talent up and down the lineup, beginning with forward Cody Gakpo, who has three of the Netherlands’ five goals in the tournament.
“We know we’re going to have to be up for the fight,” Adams said. “Because when you’re playing against that much quality, you’re able to limit them, but for how long?”
For more than 90 minutes, perhaps. As the group stage gives way to the knockouts, the possibility of a draw — such as the 0-0 result when the USA last week tackled European titan England — is replaced by a pair of 15-minute overtime periods and then, if needed, a penalty shootout.
“You have to be patient, and you have to realize it could be a 120-minute exercise — and you have to plan your lineups and substitutions accordingly,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said Friday. “And finally you have the penalty kicks, which we practiced [Thursday] and we’ll practice again [Friday].”
You think this World Cup is a big part of your life now? Just wait until the U.S. potentially reaches the final eight and a possible matchup with Argentina and the most renowned player in the world, Lionel Messi. That’s the emotional jackpot that could come with the country’s biggest men’s soccer victory in decades.
“We felt a responsibility to use this World Cup to create momentum in the United States for soccer,” Berhalter said. “That’s why we want to keep going, to keep doing well and make the country proud.”