A Bitter World Cup Finish Brings a Chance for Team USA to Look Forward

AL RAYYAN, Qatar — The whistle blew on the United States at this World Cup, and through the Khalifa International Stadium loudspeakers came a Dutch version of “Auld Lang Syne.”

The song is familiar to Americans as a New Year’s Eve anthem, played just at the moment between two distinct phases of time, a switch in the calendar. And so it was for this U.S. soccer team: a chance to reflect on what was, and to resolve for improvement in the future.

The winning team from the Netherlands, the 3-1 victors headed on to the quarterfinals, danced in a huddle. The Americans stood quietly on the outside, mostly with hands on hips.

“It’s frustration to begin with,” United States captain Tyler Adams said of the complex emotions. “But after reflecting for that quick moment, you could just really sit here and think it’s probably the first time in a long time where people will say, ‘Wow, this team has something special.’”

This year’s U.S. team was seen as young and talented, the second-youngest roster in the tournament, with the youngest starting lineup. But this World Cup is a bit mistimed, perhaps, for a program that believes it is a couple of years from full bloom.

The goal in Qatar, at least to most fans and commentators, and perhaps even to some of those close to the team, was to advance through the group stage, to reach the round of 16. That was accomplished. But goals ratchet up with each success, so the loss to the Dutch was greeted with heartbreak, and then perspective.

A disappointing game. A pretty good tournament. A bright future.

“When you put four performances like that out on the field, it really gives people something to be excited about,” Adams said.

The Americans thought they matched up well with the Dutch. And an earlier tie against England and a defeat of a scrappy Iran had them adjusting their ambitions heading to the knockout phase.

“We had a lot of really bright spots in this tournament, enough to move forward,” defender Walker Zimmerman said. “That’s what makes this loss hurt.”

What they lost was opportunity in the present. What they found was expectation.

It was a tease for the fans on Saturday, their emotions rising and falling. And it is a tease for the fans four years from now, for a World Cup to be hosted by the United States, Mexico and Canada.

“It’s hard in the moment, just because the World Cup is every four years — it makes it so unique, and so painful, when you know how long you have to wait to get back to this stage,” Zimmerman said. “It doesn’t mean we’re going to stop being hungry. It doesn’t mean we’re going to stop thinking about winning a World Cup. But it makes it hurt when you know you have four years to wait.”

The game was tighter than the score, at least early, and then briefly late, which added to the disappointment.

Christian Pulisic, who had left the Iran game for the hospital after a collision while scoring its lone goal, nearly scored in the first minutes against the Netherlands. Alone in the box, he caromed a quick shot off the goalkeeper’s leg.

The Netherlands scored in the 10th minute with a strategy that it employed several times. It sent a ball from the right side into a void behind the defenders who had rushed back toward goal. The first time, two steps inside the box, Memphis Depay one-timed a shot past goalkeeper Matt Turner.

It was only the second goal that the Americans had allowed in the tournament, and the first that wasn’t a penalty kick.

Then, with about 30 seconds left in the half, the Dutch duplicated the goal. Denzel Dumfries again worked free amid a slow-footed defense, again centered a pass a bit back upfield. Daley Blind was the eager recipient this time, and his shot left Turner waving his arms in anger at the dejected defenders in front of him.

“That was brutal,” Turner said of the second goal. “It was off a throw-in. There’s no real excuse for it. Everything that could have went wrong on that play did.”

But, like his teammates, Turner stepped back, figuratively, when asked about the team’s future, a discussion that might be recast a bit after this World Cup run.

“There’s a tremendous potential, and if you don’t see that, I don’t really know,” Turner said. “We played England, we played the Netherlands and we gave both teams really, hard, hard times.”

The Americans displayed some of that potential in the second half. Energy improved. Chances came and went. The defense tightened, and Turner made several big saves to keep the game in reach.

And in the 76th minute, Pulisic got loose on the right side, moved toward the goal and sent a low pass that hit the right foot of the substitute striker Haji Wright, who lifted the ball up and over the 6-foot-8-inch Dutch goalkeeper, Andries Noppert.

Suddenly it was 2-1 and the Americans had momentum. They had a chance. Five minutes later, that ended with another Dutch goal. But something else had already begun — growing expectations.

The whistle marked the end of one phase, the start of another. The song that made the Dutch dance might have been more appropriate for the Americans.

A time to reflect, a time to resolve.