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Frank Dell'Apa | On Soccer

The US survived the first of ‘two tournaments’ at the World Cup. Now comes the hard part.

Gregg Berhalter (left) and the Americans have accomplished their first goal in Qatar.GLYN KIRK/AFP via Getty Images

Before the World Cup started, US coach Gregg Berhalter set the agenda, telling the team there were “two tournaments” to play.

“There’s the group stage tournament and we have to finish second to earn the right to play in this other tournament, which is the knockout round,” Berhalter said. “And then from there anything can happen.”

First part of the mission accomplished. Four years after failing to qualify for the tournament, the US has moved on to Saturday’s second-round match against the Netherlands at Khalifa International Stadium in Doha.

From here, many things can indeed happen. Usually, though, the US gets eliminated right away. And the Americans will be solid underdogs against the Dutch, three-time finalists who are used to being in the World Cup for the long run.

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After savoring victory into the early morning hours, following a 1-0 victory over Iran (the match kicked off at 10 p.m. local time), the US team awoke Wednesday preparing to meet a Netherlands team that is unbeaten (13-0-5) since June of last year.

The Netherlands coasted through Group A with a 2-0-1 (7 points) record, playing conservatively under veteran coach Louis van Gaal. Meanwhile, the US had to go to the wire to finish second (1-0-2, 5 points) in Group B, locking things down defensively and relying on key performers to come through. In the opener, Christian Pulisic and Tim Weah combined for a goal in a 1-1 tie with Wales. Against England, the US concentrated on stifling play in a 0-0 tie. Then, against Iran, Pulisic crashed in to finish Sergiño Dest’s header off a Weston McKennie diagonal ball.

After being hospitalized briefly with a pelvic injury, Pulisic was released in time to join the celebrations and plans to be available Saturday.

The US will certainly need Pulisic to continue. It has established the defensive side of the game, and have Mr. Zero himself in goal — Matt Turner has totaled 16 shutouts in 23 national team appearances — but the attack needs work.

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First-round opponents Wales and Iran turned out to be two of the weaker teams in the tournament, and the US seldom seemed threatening against England. The Dutch will be more difficult to break down.

For the next phase of the event, Berhalter might have to come up with more of an attacking scheme. The US will likely stick with a 4-3-3 alignment, Pulisic and Weah initiating most of the threat on the wings. But more goals will be needed, and that means bringing strikers Josh Sargent and Haji Wright into the action. So far, Berhalter has been content with the forwards focused on defending, leading the way in a high press. They will need to contribute more against the Dutch, whose back-liners are not easily thrown off.

Could Josh Sargent have a bigger role for the US against the Netherlands?Ebrahim Noroozi/Associated Press

But no matter what happens next, the US has established an identity. It might be defense-first, a style less dynamic than, say, Canada. But the Amercans aren’t going home, yet.

Another distinction of the US group is that it is the most European-influenced team the country has fielded since MLS began in 1996. All of the starters against Iran were based in Europe, marking the first time that has happened for the US in the World Cup.

Eight of the starters either grew up in Europe or moved there to launch their pro careers, and only three (Tyler Adams, Tim Ream, and Turner) got their professional starts in MLS. As the US team’s average age (24 years, 321 days) was the youngest in the tournament, it raises questions about the benefits of competing in MLS for domestic players.

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Part of the stated purpose of the league has been to provide opportunities for US players and develop them for the national team. That appeared to be happening — since the league began, the US has started a lineup without MLS players in only one other match, a 2011 friendly against Jamaica. But this US team will form the basis for the 2026 World Cup group, and the example these players are setting is that if anyone wants to join them, they should look abroad.

“If we don’t advance but we play the best possible game we’ll hold our heads high,” Berhalter said, concluding his pre-World Cup preparation talk.

The US certainly raised its profile in the first round. Iran coach Carlos Queiroz said the US had produced some of the best, most consistent play of the World Cup, and that was before Tuesday. But the US has not given an all-around peak performance, the attack seldom clicking on all cylinders. It will need to start doing so if it plans to move on.


Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at frankdellapa@gmail.com.