DOHA, Qatar – Pain, pride and a nagging sense of something unfinished.
That’s the stony reality for the US men’s national team now. They’ve been dreaming about the World Cup knockout stages for four (and, in the case of Inter Miami CF’s DeAndre Yedlin, eight) years, and got a brief rush from getting there on Tuesday before setting that good feeling aside to focus on the task of beating the Netherlands in the Round of 16.
With Saturday’s failure to advance, their tournament is abruptly over. A whirlwind of emotions awaits them in the coming days and weeks, perhaps for no one more so than Christian Pulisic, who admitted after the 3-1 Dutch win that his early one-on-one with Andries Noppert, where he clanked a shot off the goalkeeper’s left leg with the goal gaping, would likely haunt him.
“Of course, man, it hurts,” said a drawn Pulisic postgame at Khalifa International Stadium. “I thought it was way offside when it happened, but I still hit it, and he made a good save. So of course, yeah, it's going to hurt for a while.”
Processing the pain
The USMNT’s vows to make a real run at this thing were not just talk. They truly believed they could achieve something in this tournament, but those visions are all gone now.
“One hundred percent, we came into this World Cup with the goal of winning,” said Walker Zimmerman. “And I think that we showed that we can compete with anyone, and then the way that we played, the way that we attacked games and created chances. And, again, I mentioned all the talent we have and the group of individuals that we have, how we believe in each other. And that's what makes it hurt the most, is we felt like this was a special group.”
Yedlin is the only member of this squad to have experienced this stage before. Back at Brazil 2014, he was a young phenom who’d burst out of the Seattle Sounders academy and the University of Akron and used the tournament as a launching pad to a long stint in Europe.
That means he’s also tasted this bitter pill before, too, via that dramatic extra-time loss to Belgium at the same stage eight years ago. He hopes his young teammates’ pain will power them over the next four years.
“The biggest thing is, the group learned what it feels like to lose in a World Cup. And that goes a long way,” Yedlin said. “Now you’re going into the next one and pretty much everybody in that group probably will have played in a World Cup. So now it's a whole different story. Now they know that feeling of what it's like to lose after putting so much into it. The feeling of defeat from the past can only fuel success in the future.”
Many of those who walked through the postgame mixed zone felt they’d given the Netherlands all they could handle, that they deserved more from this occasion. Weston McKennie was a bit more philosophical about the result that was cemented by repeated waves of sterling Dutch counterattacking.
“When it's not that night, it's not that night,” said the FC Dallas academy product. “You know, Americans are always people that are known as people that don't give up. And we know the US is the land of opportunity. I think this was a big opportunity for a lot of us in this tournament, and I think we did really well with it. Obviously we went out and it sucks. But at the same time, a lot of us will use this as a chip on our shoulder over the next four years to try and prove what we can do.”
An eye to the future
The next cycle will look vastly different from this one. As co-hosts of North America 2026 with Canada and Mexico, the Yanks will not have to qualify. With Gold Cup and Concacaf Nations League likely their only competitive fixtures for years to come, the USMNT may need to think outside the box to match the cauldron of the Concacaf Hexagonals and Octagonal of old.
Will Gregg Berhalter still be in charge? Does he want to be? That’s TBA.
"This is a tough one, obviously, to swallow for us. The guys put everything they had into it. Such a good group of guys. Such a close-knit group of guys, you just wanted more for them,” said the coach.
“Regarding me personally, you know, for the last month, month and a half, I've just been only focused on the World Cup, only focused on achieving things with this group,” said Berhalter of his future. “The next couple weeks, I'll clear my head, I'll sit down and think about what's next.”
Even this far out, so much has already been written and said about the Yanks’ opportunity to do something truly memorable in ‘26, as their talent-rich youngsters mature further before enjoying home-field advantage in the big event.
Seizing the moment
It fell to the oldest player on the team, surprise Qatar star Tim Ream, to offer some sobering life experiences in hopes that his teammates don’t lose sight of how quickly all this can vanish.
“I've tried to convey that to the guys: You're never guaranteed anything in this game,” said the Fulham center back, now 35 and quite blunt about this being his last (while also first) dance. “I’ve been in the program for 12 years, and never guaranteed anything. Obviously a lot of these guys are guaranteed another World Cup. And for me, that's not going to happen. And so trying to convey to treat each and every training session as if it was their last, each and every game as if it was their last.
“Tomorrow, if it all finished and their career was done, what would they be happy with it? And I can honestly say if that was the case for me: Yes, I've given it everything and I hope these guys take that advice. Because I think it's something that's important, not taking anything for granted. I've seen them take that advice in these three weeks that we've been together. So I just hope they continue to do that.”