Berhalter backs young US side to come good despite Dutch dismantling

Louis Van Gaal’s side exploit tactically naive Americans to set up quarter-final clash with Argentina

Total Soccer might still happen at the 2026 World Cup but a distant relative of Total Football stalled the American dream in Doha on Saturday.

Something is stirring among the untapped media markets. The successful minnows at this tournament are gigantic sporting nations, suddenly intent on enhancing the beautiful game.

Australia, population 26 million. Morocco, population 38 million. The children of 2002: South Korea, 52 million and Japan, an eye-popping 126 million while Saudi Arabia, population 35 million, nailed Qatar 2022.

Except for the landing.

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The USA, population 332 million and anyone lucky enough or smart enough to get a Green Card, are out. Like Canada (38 million) and Mexico (130 million), the Americans are a Mauricio Pochettino or – checks managerial dole queue – a Thomas Tuchel away from reaching the business-end of their own party three and a half years from now.

If Pochettino or Tuchel cannot be lured across the Atlantic, a technical-directorship for outgoing Dutch manager Louis van Gaal, Marcelo Bielsa or Carlos Queiroz, might elbow the North American hosts into the prime-time realm of dynastic NBA franchises and Sunday’s own, the NFL.

A total of 15.5 million watched USA beat Iran on Fox Sports.

“I think we’re a team that other countries don’t want to play,” claimed US coach Gregg Berhalter, “because of how we play, the intensity of how we play, the ball movement, the movement around the back line.

“We have a very young group, we have players that are beginning of their careers and they’re going to catch up.”

Berhalter is not wrong about the talent, 20-year-old Yunus Musah in particular, that is skipping Major League Soccer for La Liga, Serie A and English football, but nobody fears a team that lacks a goal scorer, and he knows this too.

“We don’t have a Memphis Depay right now, who is playing Champions League at Barcelona. That stuff is going to come. The American public should be optimistic.”

The American public knows soccer now, and they see the small window to unearth a striker after their best attacker, Chelsea winger Christian Pulisic, was denied a glorious chance by 6 ′8″ Heerenveen goalkeeper Andries Noppert.

An early Pulisic goal would have altered this narrative. Instead, Depay finished a flowing Dutch move on 10 minutes and Daley Blind scored a second before half-time to expose Berhalter’s tactical blind spots.

Back in Amsterdam, Marco van Basten flatly refused to buy what Van Gaal and Edgar Davids are selling the Dutch public. “Two great goals but the rest is something to cry about,” said Van Basten. “As a football lover I asked myself: ‘what am I looking at?’ Zero initiative.”

There was a six-minute scare after Haji Wright scrapped Pulisic’s 76th-minute cross over Noppert but football proved superior to soccer when Blind found Denzel Dumfries, wing back to wing back, unmarked at the back post.

“The US didn’t adapt, they didn’t adjust,” said Van Gaal coldly, “we made our tactical plan based on [targeting space on the wings] and that allowed us to win.”

Virgil van Dijk has previously engaged Van Basten in a heavyweight media spat but afterwards the Liverpool legend led the Netherlands’ huddle dance-off on the Khalifa International pitch, before Van Gaal waltzed into the team hotel, hugging the Qatari staff, as this 71-year-old videoed all before him on his phone.

Whatever happens next, the sporadically-fluid Dutch have brought a liberalism to this Middle East winter as players and the coach repeatedly ridicule Qatar World Cup chief Hassan Al Thawadi’s insistence that “public displays of affection” are forbidden.

“I was very critical at half-time in my analysis that I share with my players,” said Van Gaal. “We were dispossessed so often. That’s simply not acceptable at a World Cup against top-notch countries.”

So, this Friday in Lusail, La Albiceleste and Oranje renew a World Cup rivalry that gave us a four-piece from Johan Cruyff (two), Rudi Krol and Johnny Rep in 1974, the Mario Kempes final of 1978 and Dennis Bergkamp’s spectacular winner from Marseilles in 1998.

From the Van Basten perspective, a 3-1 dismantling of a strategically naive US side will not quell Argentina’s raucous, never go home rave, spearheaded by Messi’s glorious last stand.

The red, white and blue had exceptional support in Qatar due to their biggest military airbase in the region being 30km southwest of Doha. The Al Udeid was a secret location when the war in Afghanistan was at its peak, with 8,000 American troops stationed at ‘Camp Andy’ as they took to calling their tented village, to watch over the Qatari skies during the tournament, with the emir pouring $8 billion into its development since 2003.

Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny and his assistant Keith Andrews spent five days in Doha, leaving last Wednesday, taking in eight matches, three including next year’s Euros opposition the Netherlands and France, most useful being the 2-1 defeat of Denmark as Kasper Hjulmand’s side play a similar system to Ireland.

However, this US loss and Poland’s resistance against France are perhaps the most useful. The Ireland manager will see an increasingly rigged game, and the FAI’s need to revive something akin to the Dutch-Suriname, Moroccan-European and American formula of expanding their talent base.

The Socceros get it, with a migrant workforce that draws from Bosnian, Croatian, Turkish-Cypriot, South African and South Sudanese backgrounds, with Australia succeeding despite Fifa employee Arsene Wenger suggesting Sunday that “political demonstration” has damaged performance.

The small countries, even Uruguay, were vanquished by bigger populations as the success of international football (soccer) becomes a numbers game.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent