One of the nice things about being a young group of athletes like the U.S. men’s national team (the youngest of all 32 entrants in the World Cup this year) is that every success feels like a bonus. And with the promise of greater fortunes in the future, a loss, theoretically, shouldn’t hurt that much. When you’re young, losses aren’t even necessarily losses: They’re just backstory to your eventual breakthrough, the testing of your mettle everyone remembers when your glory days arrive.
The problem with the World Cup, though, is that you have to wait so long for that next opportunity to arrive.
The USMNT lost to the Netherlands 3-1 in the round of 16 on Saturday morning in a match that was frustrating not only because it was the best game the Dutch have played all tournament, but because it was the Americans’ worst. The Dutch passing found gaps in the U.S. defense — which was supposed to be the team’s strength — throughout, and all three of their goals were head-smackers: Shots that could have easily been snuffed out if a USMNT defender was standing where he was supposed to be. (It didn’t help that the United States defenders looked completely drained.) They were the sort of errors that even a better side than the U.S. would have trouble rebounding from, and they doomed this team — with each mistake coming at a particularly gut-punching moment. (The first came early, on the heels of a Christian Pulisic missed opportunity; the second arrived just before halftime; the third, five minutes after Haji Wright had scored a goal to bring the U.S. within one, was the nail in the coffin.) It’s never easy to lose a World Cup game, but this one was awfully frustrating
But it’s still hardly a surprise that the U.S. lost. The Netherlands is really good, after all, and looked sharper against the U.S. than they had at any other time this tournament. The U.S. is young and will surely learn lessons from this game that will serve them well down the line. This team was more skilled and talented than any predecessor, one that has clearly earned the respect of the rest of the world in a new way. There are things the United States needs to figure out with their squad — more depth in the defense, a no-doubt, put-the-ball-in-the-damned-net striker — but they took undeniable steps forward in this tournament that will be the building blocks for some great moments in the years to come.
The problem, though, again, is that we have to wait four more years for any of that to happen. There will be matches and tournaments between now and then, but even World Cup Qualifying, which is exciting in its own right (except when, uh, the U.S. doesn’t qualify), won’t be a thing in the next cycle. The United States, because it’s hosting (along with Canada and Mexico), is automatically qualified. Most likely, the next USMNT match to captivate casual fans will arrive in June 2026. That’s a really long time from now! Who in the hell knows where we’re all going to be in June 2026? That’s what makes a game like Saturday more frustrating in the moment than it is in context: There won’t be stakes like that for many moons from now. There are brighter times ahead, there’s no question about that. They’re just, you know, far ahead.
The good news: The women’s World Cup is next summer in Australia and New Zealand. On July 23, at 9 p.m. ET, the USWNT will play (and surely destroy) Vietnam in the first group stage game. And for all the progress that the USMNT has made, the USWNT is a legitimate Cup contender, probably the favorite in the tournament despite their recent struggles: They are the defending champs, after all. So there’s something to look forward to next summer. For the men’s team, though, it will get a lot better than it was on Saturday. Eventually. Later. A lot later.