Four years ago, the U.S. men’s soccer team didn’t make the World Cup finals in Russia. In the qualification stage, the team couldn’t muster a decisive win against Trinidad & Tobago, a country with fewer people than West Virginia and better known for its steelpan music than glory on the soccer field. The men’s failure in 2018 led to blister-inducing hand wringing. Why can’t the team rise to the occasion? Are the players not good enough? How can the country produce better soccer talent? And of course: Why can’t the men win like the women’s national team?
All the more reason to give them an “attaboy” and some extra orange slices for making it into this year’s World Cup and playing well enough over the last couple of weeks to advance to the knockout stage. The U.S. team tied Wales 1-1, tied England (the inventors of soccer) 0-0 and eked out a 1-0 victory against Iran on Tuesday to place second in its four-team group. Second is good enough to advance to the final 16 teams.
Americans are paying attention, as they should. The match against England was the most-viewed soccer game ever on English-language U.S. television. It may not be the Super Bowl to American viewers, but the World Cup is the most-watched sporting event in the world.
The men face the Netherlands today. Lose and they go home. Win and they are on to the quarterfinals, as far as they have ever advanced at a World Cup, other than the initial tournament in 1930 when the U.S. finished third.
The Dutch side is favored to win. The Oranje, as the team is affectionately known, includes big international soccer names Virgil van Dijk and Frenkie de Jong and breakout star Cody Gakpo, who has already potted three goals in three games in this World Cup. But the Netherlands is far from a juggernaut at the moment. And the team has its own historical residue to overcome: It’s the only country to reach the final game three times without ever winning. The expectations are high; so is the pressure.
The U.S. counters with one of the youngest lineups in the tournament, led by the hardworking Weston McKennie, captain Tyler Adams and Christian Pulisic, who suffered an injury scoring the winning goal against Iran. The team has played well defensively but has had trouble creating goals. Even so, it would not be entirely shocking if the U.S. prevails against the Dutch.
But in case today turns out to be the team’s last game, a hat tip for overcoming the demons of four years ago. That kind of scar tissue can haunt a team, but this young bunch shook it off and has already made a solid World Cup showing. Good on ya. And now go score some goals.
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