It may well sting in the immediate aftermath, but a clear eyed view of the USMNT's performance at the 2022 World Cup would suggest that they achieved what was roughly the realistic limit of their collective talent. Gregg Berhalter's side secured second in a tough, but not insurmountable group, gave an impressive account of themselves against one European power in England and then ran out of steam when asked to repeat the trick.
Now they have less than four years to go a very long way. No one would expect the tournament hosts to win it all when they have only reached the last eight once in their history, but getting only this far again would be a crushing disappointment on home soil. There is a lot of work to be done but equally cause for hope. They might never have said it it before this tournament began, but 2026 always looked a more realistic avenue to a deep run for a squad whose starting midfield were aged 24, 23 and 20. Of the starting XI in the 3-1 defeat to the Netherlands only one -- Fulham center back Tim Ream -- can be ruled out of the next tournament on the basis of age.
, "We're at a good level now and we should be even better level in four years time, playing in big clubs, being important players in big clubs, which most people already are. If the team's good right now, imagine in four years." He was justnabout right. These were good players whose talent, honed at the highest levels of the European game, that was on full display in the best moments of their 0-0 draw with England. There just were not quite enough of them and that was also on display as they ended their run.
Tyler Adams ends the tournament having played all 360 minutes plus a gaudy amount of injury time. It was easy to see why Antonee Robinson's muscle might have gone twang after the hard yards he put in, no wonder Christian Pulisic faded when he had shaken off what was absolutely not a kick to the groin to be in the side. In four games across 13 days, Berhalter has used 15 starters; nine players have been ever present in the XIs that have begun games.
The clamor for Giovanni Reyna rather obscured the lack of serious depth across the squad, particularly outside the wide forward areas where the US talent pool seems to be deepest. For reasons of age and injury neither Musah nor McKennie had it in them to compete for the full 90 against the Netherlands, but when they came off the system had to change, there simply was not a workable alternative for them.
The Netherlands played like a team well aware of the minutes in their opponents legs. They were facing a tiring side whose X-factor is the energy with which they press and attack, and they exploited it. They invited the American press in the 21 pass build up to their opener, waiting until the US midfield trident had advanced ahead of the ball and then slipping down the right flank. A swifter Musah might have made up the ground when the ball was played to Memphis Depay for pass no. 16, his captain Adams could not make up the ground in time as the Dutch forward stroked a spinning effort into the bottom left corner. It was a mentally exhausted defense that forgot the existence of such a thing as the back post when Daley Blind delivered a peach of a cross to Denzel Dumfries, who volleyed in first time on his weaker foot.
The goals marked the difference in class between these two. One team had the pure ball striking of Depay and his wing backs when the ball was in the penalty area. The other had Jesus Ferreira and Haji Wright, the last man in the Khalifa International Stadium to know that he had scored the tournament's most bafflingly brilliant goal. Striker is of course the gaping chasm in this squad heading into 2026, though the USMNT are hardly alone in that regard. This tournament has thrown up a rather more existential question of whether modern academy coaching, with its emphasis on selfless, technical confident players, is failing to produce players with the selfish gene that seems to be shared by every top striker. Josh Sargent brought pressing and took what shots came his way but he is no one's idea of a clear eyed killer.
"From my perspective, it just came down to what happened in both boxes," said goalkeeper Matt Turner, the only American who excelled in either penalty area. "They had some ideas in the final third and they were able to execute them. And when we got into the final third, their defenders made plays. And that was the biggest difference."
It was not the only one. Even when Reyna was introduced this team lacked a player to pick the final pass and a system that would create overloads in dangerous positions. No one in white was remotely as at ease setting the tempo for a contest as Frenkie De Jong, whose velvet-y orange shirt would have paired nicely with a smoking jacket. In possession the US seemed constantly active, playing with the manic intensity of Scrappy Doo in front of a bad guy. They were twitchy, constantly looking for the passing combination through the middle that would break the Dutch rearguard. Instead Virgil van Dijk and company simply held them at arms' length, letting them tire themselves out. They had complete faith in their gameplan, no wonder when it had been crafted by the great Louis van Gaal.
One wonders when the US will face such an impressive opponent again. Along with the US, Canada and Costa Rica offered some evidence of standards having risen in CONCACAF but clearly not to the level where its teams can make a major impact on the biggest stage. Without any qualifiers to play in the build up to 2026, the Gold Cup and Nations League will have to do in terms of competitive tuning for Berhalter. The US is battled hardened when it comes to playing in sub-zero temperatures or on pitches that could pass for agricultural land. What they have not been getting is many opportunities to test themselves against tactically versatile opponents stocked almost entirely from Europe's top seven leagues.
Changing that is beyond Berhalter's abilities but no one will accept it as an excuse for poor performances by the 2026 cohosts. The last fortnight has shown that the USA have a young squad with several deficiencies but more than enough promise. They have less than four years to deliver on it.